On 11 July 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the north–eastern coast of Africa. China has deployed forces to this region previously, but was constrained by logistics and the absence of a secure port. As an interim measure in February 2014, Beijing established a security and defence strategic partnership agreement with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Gulleh to utilise the existing Djibouti City commercial port and, in 2015, negotiated approval to establish a military base. Construction of the base commenced in February 2016.
The US, France and Japan have military bases in Djibouti enabling them to project forces into the Middle East, and secure critical maritime trade routes such as the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandeb Strait. The US intends to continue its military presence in Djibouti and has signed another 20-year lease for its base. China has significant trade and investment interests in Africa and access to the Djibouti port provides a “life line” to landlocked states, such as Ethiopia in which it has significant interests.
For the other powers active in the region, an important implication of the Djibouti base will be the requirement to assess and review Chinese foreign policy objectives, economic and soft power influence in Africa and strategic military capability.
China’s most recent territorial claims in the South China Sea, its promulgation of the “One Belt, One Road” strategic objectives and India’s concern at what it perceives to be the “String of Pearls” encirclement have demonstrated a more assertive foreign policy by President Xi Jinping. The opening of the Djibouti base can thus be assessed as a geostrategic manoeuvre in support of “One Belt, One Road” to secure key sea lines of communication between mainland China, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy has shifted from one of quiet progress – “hide one’s light and keep a low profile” – begun under Deng Xiaoping to a more assertive policy. Its soft power diplomacy has been influential in Africa, and long-term strategies such as “One Belt, One Road” and the so-called “String of Pearls”, are shaping its policy direction. The establishment of its first overseas military base in such a critical geostrategic area is thus an important event signifying its future strategic intentions.
The Djibouti port overlooks one of the world’s busiest maritime trade choke points, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait linking the Red Sea and Suez Canal with the Gulf of Aden, and trade routes between Europe and the Middle East. Also, it provides a logistical node connecting supply routes to central and western African States. This is important for the mineral, oil and commodity investments which are critical to China’s economic growth and food security.
An important objective of China is to increase private investment into Africa and securing a permanent sea point of entry will help to create incentives for further investment. Currently, China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and the value of business being conducted on the continent is predicted to increase from US$180 to US$440 billion in 2025. Approximately 10,000 private Chinese firms operate in Africa, and infrastructure investments in railways, sea and air ports, primarily in central and eastern Africa, will benefit from improved lines of supply of raw materials, and equipment through Djibouti.
A reassessment of China’s military capability maybe required. Its force modernisation, particularly its naval capability, has been enhanced by the domestic construction of its first aircraft carrier (reducing the reliance on Russian technology), and the planned addition of another nuclear-powered carrier to the fleet which, combined, will significantly augment its ability to project force. The Djibouti military base is designed to be defended in the future (if required), to support Air Force operations, and to support China’s interests in Africa and the Middle East. Possible future complications regarding the encirclement of India, a strategic partner of the US may require consideration.
While China declares that its intentions are to uphold stability and distribute humanitarian aid in this region, it could also be viewed as another indicator of potential challenge to US hegemony and a further step in extending its influence in Africa through soft power diplomacy.