China Boosts Djibouti Presence: More Investments and Naval Base Capable of Docking Aircraft Carriers

27 April 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

In tandem with the warning from US Africa Command that China’s naval base in Djibouti – for now, its only overseas military facility – has the ability to accommodate vessels as large as aircraft carriers, China is continuing its massive investments in the strategically-located country. With Chinese money pouring in, Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh will have little interest in turning off the taps, even at the risk of his country falling victim to debt trap diplomacy.

Background

Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee on 20 April, the commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Stephen Townsend, testified that a recently-completed pier at the Chinese naval base in Djibouti – officially the People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti – is long enough to accommodate aircraft carriers.

Confirming the concern in Washington at such developments, Gen. Townsend warned that ‘the Chinese base [in Djibouti] is turning into a “platform to project power across the continent and its waters”’ and that China is ‘looking for other basing opportunities [around Africa]’. For China, Djibouti will continue to serve as an important gateway to eastern Africa.

Comment

China’s first overseas military base or “strategic strongpoint”, as it is known in Beijing, the Djibouti facility is used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to conduct anti-piracy operations in the waters of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint connecting the two waterways. It is, however, suspected by the US, French and Japanese forces also stationed in Djibouti to be gathering intelligence on their operations in the strategically-located country.

Operational since 2017, China’s Djibouti base is located just seven kilometres from the US base at Camp Lemonnier and buttresses the nearby US$590-million Doraleh Multipurpose Port, funded, designed and built by China. Putting aside the very different strategic circumstances of Dubai and Singapore, the Djiboutian Government is counting on the Doraleh facility and the adjacent Djibouti International Free Trade Zone to be at heart of the country’s transformation into an East African equivalent of those two global hubs.

Ostensibly intended to ‘fulfil international obligations by providing humanitarian relief, supporting Chinese peacekeeping in Africa, assisting ongoing anti-piracy missions, and maintaining peace and stability in Africa and the world’, the Djibouti base in its current form provides ‘supply, logistical and intelligence support’, rather than housing actual warfighting capabilities but, with the facilities that have been constructed, that could easily change, hence the growing concern in the likes of Washington, Paris and Tokyo. As reported by Forbes in May 2020, ‘major work on a 1,120-foot [341-metre] pier appears to have been finished late last year. This is just long enough to accommodate China’s new aircraft carriers, assault carriers or other large warships. It could easily accommodate four of China’s nuclear powered attack submarines if required.’ As the author tellingly notes, however, ‘it is still relatively limited so it seems natural that China would look to increase the piers.’

In addition to its military significance, as FDI has previously assessed:

Beijing perceives Djibouti as an access point to greater Africa and its major trading partners in the continent. The country’s proximity to the maritime trading routes linking Asia, Africa and Europe, its port facilities and relative stability provide an ideal transit point for Sino-African trade. It positions the country as a critical node in Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), the maritime component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Adding to Beijing’s already significant investments in Djibouti, in January 2021, it was announced that the parastatal China Merchants Group will carry out a US$3-billion overhaul and expansion of the original, French colonial-era port that will turn it into a regional hub and a vital node in the BRI.

With Chinese money continuing to pour into the country, Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, re-elected for a fifth term on 9 April with 97.44 per cent of the vote in a poll that was boycotted by opposition groups, will have little incentive to discourage Beijing’s interest – even at the risk of his country falling victim to the so-called debt trap diplomacy that frequently accompanies Belt and Road projects.

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