China’s Military Expansionism

One news story that received relatively light coverage by the American mainstream media involves China’s relationship with Djibouti, a small nation located near the tip of the Horn of Africa as shown on this map:

As you can see, Djibouti is strategically placed along the point where the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet.  It is also located within 1000 kilometres of the Persian Gulf/Gulf of Oman through which much of the world’s daily supply of oil passes.

Back in 2015, negotiations began between China and Djibouti regarding the building of a naval base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with the base to be built near the Port of Doraleh.  Construction began in April 2016 and, according to Xinhua, the base is being built to:

“...ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia.  The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military co-operation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.”  (my bold)

Given its location in the Middle East and its proximity to the world’s largest oil producing nations, I would suggest that China has elected to build its first permanent overseas base in Djibouti for the last reason given by Xinhua.  This is not China’s first infrastructure project in Djibouti; Beijing has built numerous infrastructure projects including two new airports, a bulk terminal for potash at Tadjourah, a salt extraction plant at Lake Assal, a new port and a railway connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti.  Given the nation’s small size and small population, it is clear that China views Djibouti as a strategic partner.

According to the South China Morning Post, on July 11, 2017, the first ships carrying Chinese military personnel departed from Zhanjiang in southern China as shown on this photo:

On August 1, 2017, the flag was raised over China’s Djibouti base, marking its official opening. 

According to Stratfor, the Chinese base has the following features:

1.) an extensive security perimeter which has three layers of defense including an inner layer with a large 8 metre thick perimeter wall with several two-story towers at the corners for observation or for troop access. Outside of these walls, there is a smaller wall or thick fencing with several observations towers along the perimeter.  The space between the wall and the outer wall provides a third layer of defense.

2.) along the north side of the base there is an underground entrance that will allow vehicles to emerge from below ground level.

3.) there is a 23,000 square metre underground structure with several ramps leading into the structure.

4.) several smaller tunnels are built throughout the base which allow for unobserved activity as well as offering protection to vehicles and other key materiel.

5.) there is a row of eight hangers and a 400 metre long runway – this suggests that helicopters will be based there rather than fixed wing aircraft since the runway quite short.

Here is a satellite photo showing part of the infrastructure of the Port of Doraleh at the top of the screen capture with the Chinese base to located immediately to the southwest:

…and here is a closeup of the base while under construction:

You can clearly see the short runway and and hangers to the side.  

It is important to keep in mind that China is not the only major military power that has facilities in Djibouti or nearby.  The United States Naval Expeditionary Base (Camp Lemonnier) is located at Djibouti’s Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, a base that is jointly shared with France.  Here is a satellite photo of the base which originally belong to the French Fifth Overseas Task Force:

France also has access to a naval base at Heron.   Japan’s facilities in Djibouti are called the Deployment Airforce for Counter-Piracy Enforcement, part of the nation’s commitment to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden from piracy.  For a nation that is less than one fifth the size of Oklahoma, it certainly has a concentration of military bases.

The most recent news from Djibouti/China suggests that China is now starting to flex its muscles as a global military power.   According to the South China Morning Post, People’s Liberation Army troops from China’s base in Djibouti have now staged their first live-fire drills outside of the boundaries of their new base as part of their move toward combat readiness.  Here is a video showing one of their drills:

A contingent of up to 10,000 soldiers is set to remain at China’s Djibouti base until at least 2026 when the agreement between China and Djibouti is set to expire.  By way of comparison, America’s Camp Lemonnier is home to approximately 4000 U.S., joint and allied forces military and civilian personnel as well as Department of Defense contractors.

While the military exercises by China’s People’s Liberation Army in Djibouti are at a completely different scale than U.S. military exercises, they mark the beginning of China’s move to become a global military power.  Until now, China has been satisfied with flexing its muscles in the South China Sea; the move to Djibouti is a game-changer and will give China’s Navy access to much more of the world.  

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