China’s Logistics Base and the Future of Sino-African Relations
By GABRIEL MORAN | August 5, 2017
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army reached a landmark point in its expansion on July 11th when it finally solidified an agreement with the African country of Djibouti to set up its first overseas base.
In a ceremony at the port of Zhanjiang in the Guodong Province, the commander of the PLA navy, Shen Jinlong, read out an order regarding the designation and construction of the base. Admiral Shen oversaw the departure of two Chinese battleships for the Horn of Africa. According to the state run media outlet Xinhua, the base will allow China to escort cargo ships, participate in peacekeeping missions, and engage in humanitarian activities in Africa and west Asia. In a statement from the PLA Navy, the establishment of an overseas base was the product of friendly negotiations and shared interests from both governments.
The base, located at the port of Doraleh, sits prominently on the Horn of Africa adjacent to entrances to the Red Sea, the Arabian sea, leading to the Indian ocean and therefore several bustling international shipping lanes. Expected to be roughly half a square kilometer in size, the base will be staffed by a battalion-sized formation of 1,000 military personnel, however, the deal does allow up to 10,000 military personnel on base until 2026. The Chinese government has been adamant that the African base is nothing more than a logistics base with naval support facilities.
Despite the assurances of the Chinese government, other international powers are wary of this development. The tiny country of Djibouti already contains American, French, and Japanese bases. Ahead of then Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the African country in 2015, several U.S. congressman asked Secretary Kerry to be cognizant of the potential risks to American interests posed by Chinese ambitions in the region. Indian media outlets have expressed their concerns with having a Chinese presence so near to the Indian ocean. Having seen an increased effort by Chinese diplomats to forge relationships with countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, Indians worry that they will soon be another bauble in China’s “string of pearls”.
Djibouti has long been identified as a strategic geopolitical foothold for world powers looking to have a presence in Africa and to bolster their international trade security. Its relative stability in an otherwise volatile region makes them an ideal negotiation partner to establish a presence on the continent. Furthermore, the country’s proximity to major international trade routes makes it ideal for naval vessels seeking to support the passing cargo ships. Djibouti is also geographically close to other leading African powers and the Middle East, making it a desirable location for a military support presence.
The establishment of a military base in Africa follows a decade of aggressive efforts by China to build commercial, military, and diplomatic ties with African countries.
Within Djibouti itself, China has been a welcomed investor and champion of the development of its national infrastructure. The port of Doraleh, an extension of the Port of Djibouti, is actively owned and managed by China Merchants Group and DP World. In the last five years, China has become actively involved in joint anti-piracy operations along the African coast to protect vital trade routes.
China’s commercial diplomacy on the continent is unmatched in its sustained pursuit. According to the Fourth China-Africa Industrial Forum, trade between Africa and China in 2014 amounted to 220 billions dollars. Historically, development of African mining and oil sectors by China has been strategically pursued in order to provide China’s colossal economy with raw materials. As a corollary, the Chinese government has actively loaned and invested in African countries and businesses in order to develop sectors and markets of interest for its manufactured goods. In a visit to Africa in 2016, President Xi Jinping promised that China would invest 60 billion dollars in Africa. Since 2006, the Chinese government has worked tirelessly to diversify its oil imports from its traditional sources: Indonesia, Oman, Yemen, and Iran. By securing petroleum deals with countries like Angola, Chad, and Nigeria, China now receives 1.4 million barrels of oil from Africa daily. African countries also serve as major markets for Chinese goods. These movements by President Xi Jinping fall into the “One Belt, One Road” development strategy advocated by his administration that calls for the creation of an economic and maritime connection between Africa and Eurasia.
The development of an overseas military base is a major accomplishment for the Chinese government and military. It has successfully realized its desire to be an international power with a global military presence. However, the expansion of Chinese ambitions comes with heightened tensions from other world powers who view the eastern giant with trepidation and concern.