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China's Power Play in Djibouti: First Step to Great Naval Power Status?

© AFP 2023 / POOL / Guang NiuFour Chinese Navy submarines (L) and warships attend an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy on April 23, 2009 off Qingdao in Shandong Province
Four Chinese Navy submarines (L) and warships attend an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy on April 23, 2009 off Qingdao in Shandong Province - Sputnik International
China's plans to open a military facility in Djibouti have been giving US pundits the chills, with commentators suggesting that Beijing may be attempting to "edge out Western influence" in Africa and the Middle East. Russian experts suggest that the base is, more than anything, a sign that China is ready to emerge as a great naval power.

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Last week, US media suggested, citing US officials, that China's diplomatic efforts to set up a naval logistics center for patrol boats in the northeast African nation of Djibouti demonstrate that "Beijing is in Africa for the long haul," and that it could eventually make a play to "edge out Western influence in the region and secure access to the continent's vast mineral resources for itself."

With the Chinese Foreign Ministry noting that a final agreement has not yet been reached, officials have emphasized that the creation of the piece of maritime military infrastructure in Africa will assist the Chinese Navy in fulfilling its international obligations, first and foremost, its peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the UN.

Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa between Eritrea to the north and the chaos-hit Somalia to the south, has long been considered a key strategic location for Western militaries, with ships based in Djibouti City's port facilities capable of controlling the entrance to and exit from the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. A long-term partner for Washington and NATO, the country is presently home to Italian, French, Japanese and Pakistani military facilities.

Russian experts commenting on the prospects for the new base emphasize that its construction carries with it several important implications – political, economic, and military.

China's First Military Base Abroad

Asked for comment on the prospective base by the Svobodnaya Pressa newspaper, Vasili Kashin, an expert on the Chinese military at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies & Technologies, suggested that the negotiations are "important, first and foremost, from a political point of view."

According to Kashin, "as far as we can understand, this is a very modest object in terms of its scale, not unlike the logistics centers used in their own time by the Soviet Navy. However, the political significance of the event trumps its military importance. After all, this will be the first real Chinese military base abroad, even if it is truncated in form."

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"Before this," the expert recalled, "the Chinese had something of a principled approach, saying that it was not their policy to establish a permanent military presence in other countries. In the past, there have been rumors of Chinese military intelligence facilities in other countries, for example, aimed at intercepting radio communications. But in this case we are dealing with a piece of infrastructure which will see the presence of actual troops."

"At the same time," Kashin suggests, "the existence of this facility will be explained as an indication that the Chinese are set on increasing the size of their military forces in the Middle East and Africa. Since 2009, the PLA Navy has taken part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, and they were able to do it without a base in the region, capable of adequately supplying their admittedly limited forces."

First Step to Great Power Status

Kashin believes that ultimately, the plans for the Djibouti base are really "a strong indication that China is becoming a full-fledged naval great power, on par with France and Britain, if not to speak of Russia or the United States. It is an indication that Beijing seeks to secure its interests abroad, including via the use of its armed forces. And its interests are very considerable."

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This, Kashin notes, owes to the fact that "China has been Africa's largest trading partner since the beginning of the 2010s, investing very heavily in the continent, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Accordingly, the Chinese are also beginning to play a more active role in the Middle East. And while their base in Djibouti will not see a substantial deployment of forces, it will allow them to concentrate significant naval forces in the region. This of course, significantly alters the overall balance of power."

The analyst suggests that over the last several years, he has observed the Chinese Navy's "huge leap" forward in becoming a real ocean-going navy. "If we are speaking about the surface fleet, and especially in the field of amphibious assault ships, the Chinese are ahead not only of contemporary Russia; in terms of a number of capacities they surpass even the Soviet Union of the mid-1980s."

"The reality," Kashin notes, is that "China has already built one of the most powerful navies in the world, capable not only of demonstrating its presence, but serving as a major force capable of striking targets inland, large ambitious landing operations, etc. And this is just the beginning. I am confident that after Djibouti, the PLA Navy will build other foreign bases, not only in Africa, but in the Middle East, and after that, perhaps in Latin America as well."

The Chinese Navy, the expert recalled, has shown signs of growing activity in recent years, their surface and submarine fleets increasingly making their presence felt all across the world's oceans, from Latin America and Africa to the Black and Baltic seas. "For the Chinese, long-haul trips lasting from a few months to half-a-year have become commonplace. They are creating a completely new generation of sailors, who are now really spending their lives at sea, and who are subjected to some very expensive training."

According to Kashin, China, "which not so long ago had a coastal fleet, devoted to the provision of coastal defense, and to fighting for islands along its coast, has factually outgrown these limits, [its fleet] gradually transforming into a real ocean-going fleet."

US Response Inevitable

Alexei Fenenko, Associate Professor of International Politics at Moscow State University, complemented Kashin's analysis, suggesting that the rise of the Chinese Navy, including their imminent arrival in Djibouti, will inevitably lead to a deterioration of relations with the United States, previously the world's sole naval superpower.

The analyst believes that "it is clear, that the Chinese base in Djibouti will have an impact on Sino-US relations. The United States has long been worried about China's intentions to build an ocean-going fleet. Therefore, in my view, Washington will be working to strengthen the concept of containment vis-à-vis Beijing."

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The measures the US is likely to use, according to Fenenko, include strengthening its base at Sembawang, in Singapore, creating the possibility of dangerous bottlenecks in the Malacca Strait, and "thus depreciating the value of China's possible foreign bases." Other efforts will include strengthening "their long-standing strategy of pitting Vietnam against China. Finally, the US will work to strengthen Japan and Taiwan. In particular," the expert believes, "the Taiwan Strait will play a special role, as it connects the South China and East China seas."

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