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China set to open first military outpost in Africa

China, according to a top US general, has signed a deal to establish its first military base in Africa. It would underscore Beijing’s growing global ambitions and raise the stakes for both cooperation and competition.

The head of the US Africa Command, General David Rodriguez, told defense reporters recently that China had signed a ten-year contract to set up its first military base in the African nation of Djibouti, #link:http://thehill.com/policy/defense/261153-chinas-military-makes-move-into-africa:The Hill# reported on Tuesday.

"They are going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa," Rodriguez said according to the report. He added that China would use the installation as a logistics hub "to extend their reach."

Rodriguez made the remarks at an event with the Defense Writers Group in Washington last Friday, but did not specify the date the contract was signed, Kristina Wong, who reported the original story told DW via email.

Military base would make sense

Asked about the base in a press conference today, a spokesman for the Chinese defense ministry only reiterated that China needed to improve the supply of its vessels there and was in negotiations with Djibouti about a supply base.

China experts approached by DW find Rodriguez' remarks credible.

"It is a realistic report," Frans-Paul van der Putten, a senior scholar focusing on China's rise as a global power at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, said via email. "A logistical support facility for Chinese naval activities in the Gulf of Aden seems likely, given China's counter piracy operation there."

"I think it is credible," said Moritz Rudolf, a specialist on Chinese foreign policy at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. "It would make sense for China to open up that military base."

The move would end long-running speculation about a possible Chinese hub in Djibouti which had intensified since May when Djibouti's president Ismail Omar Guelleh confirmed that his country was negotiating with China about building a naval base there. A visit by the chief of China's People's Liberation Army general staff with Guelleh two weeks ago to talk about military relations between both countries could be seen as a further indicator that negotiations were progressing, said Rudolf.

Dschibuti Hafen

Djibouti's port is the safest hub in the strategically important Horn of Africa

Hefty investments

Building its own military base in Djibouti would only be the next logical step for Beijing which already has established deep ties in Djibouti and Eastern Africa in recent years. In Djibouti alone, a small nation of some 800,000 people with geostrategic importance due to its location on the Gulf of Aden, Beijing has already invested close to $10 billion in infrastructure projects – six times the gross domestic product of the country, noted Rudolf.

Until now China has conducted its anti-piracy operations in the area from Djibouti's port. By setting up its own base Beijing would gain flexibility and independence, and in the long-run save money since a permanent base is cheaper than leasing space in other facilities.

First overseas base

The significance of China's move to establish a permanent military foothold in Africa is hard to overestimate, said van der Putten:

"This would be China's first overseas military base ever apart from its presence in UN peacekeeping missions."

"This is substantial," added Rudolf. "China is becoming a more important player in the world, but in particular in Eastern Africa. So having a base in Djibouti is of significant and strategic value."

US counterterrorism hub

China would become only the latest nation to establish a military hub in Djibouti. The country already hosts the US' only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, a key facility for American counterterrorism operations in the region, particularly in Yemen. Last year, Washington extended the lease of its base there for up to 20 years. In addition to the large US base, Djibouti, a former French colony, is also home to French and Japanese military installations.

US-Außenminister John Kerry in Dschibuti

John Kerry was the first US Secretary of State to travel to Djibouti in May where he met President Ismail Omar Guelleh

The planned establishment of China's first military outpost in Africa need not give rise to concerns about Beijing's ulterior motives, despite what has been widely viewed as Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea, said Rudolf.

International navies, including those of the US, Europe, India and China, had already proven that they can work together to secure the shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. "So in this particular region I wouldn't consider this a threat, especially given that all those other countries already have their own naval facilities in the region," said Rudolf.

Emerging naval power

"But on the other hand," he added, "it shows that China has a bigger interest in the Middle East and in Eastern Africa, and that China will of course be using their own airstrip to which they will have access to gather more intelligence about Eastern Africa and the Middle East."

The base, once established, is a sign, "that China is an emerging naval power in the Indian Ocean and potentially also in the Mediterranean," noted van der Putten. "It opens new opportunities for cooperation with other navies and brings new risks of great power competition."

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