Beijing, People’s Republic of China — In the early morning hours on Tuesday, ships from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) departed their port in Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong Province on a historic journey to the small East African country of Djibouti. Their mission, to establish and open China’s first overseas military installation in China’s latest rapid global military expansion seen in the East African region.
Officials in Beijing describe the base as merely a “logistics facility” that will provide security to Chinese exports from the African continent. PLA Navy Commander Shen Jinlong in a statement to the Chinese State news outlet, Xinhua said that the base was strictly a logistical support hub that “will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia.”
Jinlong went on to say that the Chinese base will focus on protection operations within the “international strategic seaways” of the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia where Chinese exports have been targeted by piracy. Something that Erik Prince and his Chinese-owned Frontier Services Group’s recently awarded security contract will also establish in the South-West State of southern Somalia as China looks to expand its footprint even further within East Africa for an impending resource grab within that, as of yet untapped, war-torn region in the coming years.
The Chinese began construction of the base in 2016 after a brief negotiation’s with the Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in which China signed a 10-year lease of $20 million in rent per year. China sweetened the deal by committing more than $12 billion in infrastructural investments into building new ports and another international airport. These Chinese funds are very welcomed as President Guelleh dreams of making Dijbouti the “African Dubai.” where rich westerners and Arabs come to relax and invest their money. The newly completed base is located in the port city of Oback some 20 miles across from the already established United States Naval Expeditionary Base, Camp Lemonnier. And the U.S. isn’t very happy with it having China as its new neighbor.
Camp Lemonnier, which houses the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), falls under the command of the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM). However, since the draw down in Afghanistan and the end of U.S. military operations within Iraq. Camp Lemonnier has become the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) strategic hub for the continued Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) within the highly volatile Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The camp also has a heavy U.S. special operations presence with the elite members of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operating out of the camp under the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Juniper Shield (JSOTF-JS) under the command of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICOM). On top of that, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) runs its clandestine drone operations throughout the MENA from Camp Lemonnier as well. Now with China having its base right across the bay they now have an almost front row seat for their intelligence gathering apparatuses to potentially collect operational information on all of these clandestine activities.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of US Africa Command (USAFRICOM) had this to say about the latest Chinese base in Djibouti, “We’ve never had a base of, let’s just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be. So there’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of growing going on.” When pressed on the potential for security issues between the two nations’ militaries Gen. Waldhauser stated, “Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns, and I think that our base there is significant to [the] US because it’s not only AFRICOM that utilizes it, but also US Central Command(CENTCOM), which operates in the Middle East, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and European Command.”
However, China is adamant that nothing nefarious is afoot and that the Djiboutian government was consulted through-out with the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei saying, “China and Djibouti consulted with each other and reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable the Chinese troops to better fulfill escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability.”
The U.S. was not shy in being critical with the Djiboutian government’s dealing with China however, which prompted the secretary-general of Djibouti’s Foreign Ministry to exclaim, “We’ve been criticized for working with the Chinese, but they are doing business everywhere, it’s not just with us. And if other countries are not investing here, what do you want us to do?”
In a recent op-ed in Chinese state-run Global Times, China answered the United States concerns by stating that the “essential purpose of China’s development of its military might [in Africa] is to protect ‘China’s safety,’ and is not about seeking to control the world.” The opinion piece ended with “the Chinese people need to have their own strength.”
USAFRCOM’s commander, Gen. Waldhauser simply replied to this statement by saying that “the U.S. has spoken to the Djiboutian government about it, and they know what our concerns are.”
Concerns posited or not, the PLA Naval ships are at full steam towards their new overseas base. The number of Chinese troops is unknown, yet the new Chinese base has been reported to be able to house up to 10,000 of its troops. Time will tell if this new military expansion by the Chinese will put the U.S. and China on a collision course as tensions are sure to rise within the region and globally.
Feature image courtesy of: People’s Liberation Army Navy