China’s first overseas military base—located at a critical chokepoint for global trade looking to navigate the Suez Canal—could be a geopolitical game changer, but it has less impact in military terms.
Establishing the Djibouti base at the Horn of Africa signals the Chinese regime’s long-term strategic intentions, say experts. A Chinese Communist Party that once pledged to stay out of the affairs of other countries is now building military capacity far beyond its immediate border.
But the change is less important to China’s military capability than to its ability to directly intervene in global shipping. Earlier this year, the regime convinced Panama—home to the world’s other great shipping pass—to cut ties with Taiwan and fully back China’s claim on the island nation, which the regime describes as a breakaway province.
These moves follow a series of port deals that have given the regime the ability to ensure its critical shipping lanes.
Until now, however, none of those facilities have been for direct military use.
Establishing the Djibouti base reverses a long-standing military policy, said Gabe Collins, a researcher and co-founder of the analysis website China Signpost.
“If you look at basic foreign policymaking throughout the vast majority of the PRC’s history, overseas bases are major red lines they weren’t willing to cross, and they pretty clearly crossed that now,” he said. Collins co-authored a report on the base and its implications two years ago.
The change comes as the Chinese regime becomes increasingly bellicose in its expansive claim to a major swath of the South China Sea. The regime has also been vocal and threatening in its ongoing and multiple border disputes with India. Those disputes have reached an intensity not seen in decades.
Personnel from China are now en route to build out the facility, carried on ships that are part of the regime’s rapidly modernizing military.
That military is being reformed to develop the capability to fight battles beyond its shores.
The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aims to, among other things, “improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland,” reads the secretary of defense’s 2017 report to Congress on Chinese military developments.
While the regime is most intent on potential conflict in the South and East China seas, Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fueled concern in strategic rival India that the PLA is gaining another position that could threaten Indian interests.
Limited Military Value
Fortunately for India, the actual military strategic value of the base is limited, said Collins. While the base may be useful for launching attacks against much weaker foes in the Middle East or North Africa with limited attack capabilities, it is as much a liability as it is an asset in a conflict with a greater power.
“I suspect that base would become a high explosive sponge fairly quickly. It’s a targeter’s dream because it’s built a ways outside of the town,” he said.
Using Djibouti as a base of operations to fight another great power would be like throwing stones from a house made of “very, very, very thin glass,” said Collins. The base wouldn’t last long, he said.
The base is more useful for power projection into regional conflicts, serving as a refueling and resupply depot rather than a base of operations. The fact that the United States, France, and Japan have bases there reinforces the point. To date, China has used its commercial facility there for years in ongoing anti-piracy efforts and, in 2015, to evacuate 500 Chinese nationals from Yemen.
Those operations gave China the pretext to forward-deploy naval forces in the region. With its Djibouti foothold now being expanded for military use, the regime gains a base in a country that is relatively stable in a region rife with conflict. For an expansionist China looking to build geopolitical influence in Africa and with oil-rich Gulf states, it’s an important gain.
“If you have an amphibious ship with some armed helicopters on it, and you are dealing with insurgents in some countries in East Africa, or even Yemen or place like that, you just came to the table with a lot of currency and you can play all night long,” said Collins.
Even if India can have some confidence that the base has limited military value, the ability China gains to forward deploy its navy along a critical shipping lane has unsettling implications.
The Chinese regime has been working to secure its presence at the world’s most important chokepoints for shipping oil: the Strait of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Turkish Straits.
In doing so, the regime could play a major role in securing or controlling world trade. That trade is now assured through the “Pax Americana,” a state of relative international peace overseen by the United States.
But a “Pax Sinica,” or “Chinese Peace,” could look very different, said Collins.
“One of the things you have to look at is the countries that are serving as security guarantor, you have to see what sort of mentality they bring to the table. Are they coming to this with a mercantilist mindset or much more with a globalist and trading oriented mindset?” said Collin.
The United States has been an equal opportunity security provider, he said, basically indifferent to where oil was going, whether it be Europe or East Asia.
“We don’t discriminate at all in how we provide security based on the destination of the shipment and so I think that’s something that makes the Pax Americana unique,” he said.
While China’s intentions are unclear, its aggressive claims in the South China Sea and habit of using PLA hackers to steal commercial technology for China’s state-owned companies and high-priority industries are just two of many examples fueling allegations that the regime takes the mercantilist approach to trade.
At the moment, China can do little more than fly its flag in Djibouti, said Collins. It naval assets are limited to the few warships and support vessels that have made a passing presence there.
But that could change, and China could take a tactic it has used successfully in the South China Sea—using “coercive tactics, such as the use of law enforcement vessels and its maritime militia, to enforce maritime claims and advance its interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.”
From that perspective, even if the base has little value in an actual war, it could boost efforts to otherwise assert the interests of the Chinese regime.