Inside China’s Base in Djibouti

Djibouti and the Southern Red Sea from Above (NASA)

There has been a lot of talk recently, both within the IR community and the broader media, about China’s Djibouti support base.  Open-source satellite analyst @detresfa_ tweeted on May 9 that “development work has carried on at the site through #Covid19,” and Forbes published an article May 15 detailing the design of the base.  East Asia Forum, too, published an article May 16 claiming that the Djibouti base is “increasing its power.”  What led China to establish this base in 2013, and what new developments have caught the attention of analysts?

As it turns out, Djibouti and China have a longstanding diplomatic relationship.  China established relations with the small African country, which borders Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, in 1979.  Since then, as reports, China has invested in Djibouti by building housing projects as well as a stadium, school, and bank, and by participating in student exchange programs.  China even constructed the People’s Palace in Djibouti City.  As South China Morning Post reports, China has invested an impressive amount in East African countries—“twice as much money between 2014 and 2018 in African countries as American companies, spending US$72.2 billion.”

The People’s Palace, a monument in Djibouti constructed by China (Wikimedia Commons)

According to SCMP, China’s loans to African countries are appealing because they “come without the demands for improvements on human rights that often accompany American aid.”  China allegedly holds over 70% of Djibouti’s debt, but, as Djibouti’s foreign affairs minister Mahamoud Ali Yousouf told SCMP, “It was quite natural that we raise our partnership with China. Neither Europe nor America were ready to build the infrastructure we needed.”

Located on the Gulf of Aden, the Djibouti base is a geographical hair’s breadth away from important strategic locations such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.  (Interestingly enough, Aden was formerly a strategically crucial location for the British, who relied upon the Port of Aden as a coal-refueling stopover.)  The Djibouti base overlooks the Indian Ocean, a geographical sphere that has seen the expansion of China’s “string of pearls” as well as ports and projects tied to the Belt and Road Initiative, such as Gwadar in Pakistan.  Jean-Pierre Casteban points out that in addition to filling a role in the “string of pearls,” the base “enhances the PLA’s combat capability in order to be able to evacuate Chinese nationals from non-friendly environments and better protect Chinese facilities in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa, a region where more oil and gas has been prospected and has started to be exploited. There are probably 100,000 Chinese nationals in the Horn of Africa (60,000 in Ethiopia alone), a region that includes unsecure countries as South Sudan and Somalia.”

According to East Asia Forum, Djibouti hosts a number of countries’ militaries—including that of the United States, which maintains a base at Camp Lemonnier.  Djibouti’s location makes it an ideal launching point for anti-piracy operations, which often need to be coordinated by several countries.  As East Asia Forum points out, however, “Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has dropped significantly and is no longer the main reason for the PLA Navy presence in Djibouti. No Chinese PKOs [peacekeeping operations] have transited via Djibouti, indicating the base has limited relevance for peacekeeping.”  

Forbes writes that the Chinese base is under five miles from a port frequented by American and European warships, and approximately seven miles from Camp Lemonnier.  As a result, it has certainly piqued the interest of Western military analysts.  Satellite imagery indicates that in late 2019, the Chinese base completed a pier extension project.  More recent modifications into 2020 include “possible heliport modifications” as well as the construction of what seems to be a new quay.  While China has declined to describe the base as “military,” preferring to refer to it as a “logistics support” and R&R stopover for soldiers, the base’s design would seem to suggest otherwise.  As Casteban puts it, “The PLA base looks like a highly fortified castle equipped with watchtowers, a drone control facility, a control tower and a fuel storage facility.  It is suspected that the base’s underground is used for secured transmissions as well as cyber- and electronic warfare.  Its helicopter platform is wide enough to land containers parachuted from transport planes; and it is long enough for drones. It is also designed to be protected from air attacks.  Its only weakness is the absence of an airport.”

While tensions have arisen between the US and China over the base—such as during the “laser incident” of 2018, during which lasers allegedly fired from the base injured US pilots flying overhead on a likely surveillance mission—the base’s location offers opportunities for Sino-American cooperation.  Casteban’s analysis suggests that anti-piracy operations create an opportunity for Chinese and American forces, as well as European ones, to collaborate militarily.  Furthermore, the fact that Djibouti is willing to play host to both Chinese and American militaries suggests that it could act as a mediating force should tensions arise across the seven-mile gap between Lemonnier and the Chinese base.  After all, the simultaneous presence of both countries’ militaries behooves Djibouti, which might not receive American “investment” on the scale of China’s but still benefits from a trade partnership with the US.  As coronavirus and the ongoing trade war further test the Sino-American relationship, such third party mediation could prove more crucial than ever.

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