In July 2017, China activated its first overseas military base, which has been officially referred to as a “support facility”, in the African country of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The naval base could be the first of a string of overseas bases China plans to build in Asia, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific to secure its international maritime routes around the world.1
Prior to the establishment of the Djibouti naval base, China had relied on commercial seaports in the region, notably the Port of Djibouti, to replenish its naval tasks forces operating in the Gulf of Eden for counter-piracy and escort missions.2 Since the counter-piracy operations began in December 2008, Chinese naval fleets made over 50 visits to the Port of Djibouti.
The relations between the two countries deepened after Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh visited to China in February 2014, which led to the signing of a bilateral defence and security pack shortly after. Chinese investments flooded into Djibouti for a range of infrastructure megaprojects including seaport, railway line, and water pipeline. The Djibouti Armed Forces also received Chinese-made equipment including the MA60 transport aircraft and WMA301 wheeled assault gun.3
In May 2015, President Guelleh told a French news agency that talks were underway with the Chinese for a new military base, saying “China would be a welcome addition to the growing international military presence in Djibouti”, after France, the United States, and Japan had all established military bases in the country.4 In January 2016, the Chinese foreign spokesman confirmed that the deal had been signed for building a Chinese logistics support facility in Djibouti.5 By August, satellite imagery showed that the construction work on a 90-acre plot at the northern port of Obock in Djibouti was well underway.
On 11 July 2017, the Chinese state media reported the deployment of military troops and warships to the Djibouti base. In a ceremony held at Zhanjiang Naval Base in the southern province of Guangdong, Admiral Shen Jinlong, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), read an order on setting up the base in Djibouti, and conferred military flag to the expeditionary unit.6
The expeditionary unit to Djibouti consisted of two naval vessels – a Type 071 (NATO reporting name: Yuzhao class) amphibious transport dock Jinggangshan (999), and a semi-submersible transport ship Donghaidao (868). The latter is similar to the U.S. Navy’s Montford Point class mobile landing platform (MLP) in concept, and can be used to transport air cushion landing craft and other small naval vessels. In additional to the sailors on the two vessels, the expeditionary unit also includes land detachments composed of soldiers from the PLA Ground Force and Marine Corps.
According to the Diplomat, the deal between the two countries allowed Chinese military presence in the country until 2026, with a contingent of up to 10,000 military personnel.7 According to the Chinese state media, the naval base in Djibouti will be used to support PLA Navy operations in West Asia and Africa for anti-piracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian aids, evacuation of Chinese citizens, and military co-operations with foreign countries.
- The Namibian. 2014. Chinese naval base for Walvis Bay. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?id=130693&page=archive-read. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. 2013. China and Djibouti. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/fzs_663828/gjlb_663832/2969_663954/. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson. 2015. China SignPost™ (洞察中国) #91: “Djibouti Likely to Become China’s First Indian Ocean Outpost”. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andrewerickson.com/2015/07/china-signpost-91-djibouti-likely-to-become-chinas-first-indian-ocean-outpost/. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Stars and Stripes. 2015. China looks to join US, France with military base in Djibouti. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.stripes.com/news/africa/china-looks-to-join-us-france-with-military-base-in-djibouti-1.345715#.WZcMMT9um70. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. 2016. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on January 21, 2016. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1333741.shtml. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- China Military (The PLA Daily Official Site). 2017. China sets up base in Djibouti. [ONLINE] Available at: http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-07/12/content_7672284.htm. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- The Diplomat. 2017. China’s Experiment in Djibouti. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/10/chinas-experiment-in-djibouti/. [Accessed 18 August 2017].