China is to build its first military base in Africa. The naval base in Djibouti marks an important step for Chinese foreign policy, DW's Frank Sieren writes.
For a long time, China's foreign policy was focused on economic relations. In June, the government hinted with a new security law that this might change. However, the white paper stated that China would remain defensive in nature and the military would serve merely to secure peace. At the end of November, President Xi Jinping announced what is effectively a reform of the People's Liberation Army at a military conference. Instead of inflexible land and naval units, the idea is to create flexible forces that work together under one united command. Security in international waters and the defense of territorial claims were given priority in a nod to the dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
China's first official military base abroad, in Djibouti on the horn of Africa, will serve largely to secure international waters and protect the continent's Chinese population. About 60 Chinese warships have been taking part in escort missions since 2008 as part of a UN anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. Still, officials have hesitated to refer to the Djibouti holding as a military base, instead saying that the port can be used to support Chinese troops in the region so that they have a port of call to rest at and stock up on supplies. Djibouti and China have signed an agreement that is valid for the next 10 years.
The country is in good company in Djibouti. The small state lies strategically on the Bab-el Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. It is a port of call for many pirates, and the crisis-ridden countries of Somalia and Yemen are not far away. There are some 4,000 soldiers posted at the only US military base in Africa, which is currently being expanded at a cost of $1.3 billion (1.2 billion euros). Japan and Italy also have a presence in Africa, as does France, which has 1,500 soldiers posted on the continent. Russia had also wanted to position itself there, but was rejected because of conflicts of interest with the United States. Astonishingly enough, these problems do not seem to exist with China.
'String of pearls'
For China, Djibouti is an important junction. The base will not only help secure economic interests, facilitating the transport of crude oil through the strait for example, but China will be able to keep a better eye on the Arabian peninsula and parts of Africa further inland. A runway is being built for this purpose. It has long been known that China is investing heavily in the African continent, and just a few days ago President Xi promised to invest $60 billion into the continent's business sector. So it was merely a matter of time until Beijing decided to get more involved militarily, to increase security in the region. The African Union has been given 100 million euros ($108 million) for a quick-reaction force. Some 8,000 Chinese troops are to be part of a UN peacekeeping mission. It is plausible that there will be other forms of cooperation with the People's Liberation Army in Africa.
The new base can also be seen from a different perspective: It provides a new link in what is known as the "String of Pearls" along the coast of the Indian Ocean. Ports are being constructed or planned at many stations so that China's navy will later have ports of call and not need to return to China to stock up on fuel and supplies. The chain begins in Southeast Asia, in Cambodia, and could eventually be linked to the Indian Ocean by the proposed Kra Canal in Thailand. The chain would continue via a port in Myanmar to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to Gwadar in Pakistan. As an extension, Djibouti makes sense.
Many of the ports are to be linked by rail to China, and they will thus help expand China's military reach considerably. Experts believe that the "String of Pearls" strategy is a reaction to US geopolitical interests. China no longer wants to - and no longer can - depend merely on economic cooperation and partnerships.