On July 11, the Chinese Navy vessel, Jinggang Shan, set sail from southern China, laden with troops bound for foreign shores. With that, China practically established its first overseas military base.
The troops were bound for a new Chinese installation located in the diminutive East African nation of Djibouti. The tiny nation, smaller than New Hampshire, houses several military bases, including our own Camp Lemonnier, reportedly a central hub for American drone operations in the region.
Now, if you were to take some news headlines at face value, you might think that some sort of Red Dawn-style scenario in the area was mere years away. “The Times of India” fretted that the base would be the first in a series of many bases aimed at encircling India, according to the “string of pearls” geopolitical theory. Singapore’s “The Straits Times” fretted that the base would be a first step to increasing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.
Now to argue that Chinese leadership is not interested in expanding its power abroad would be silly; China’s Belt and Road plan to create economic connections from Turkey to Tianjin and its belligerence in the South China Sea easily dispel that notion.
A more nuanced view of the new base, which China consistently refers to as a support facility, is the facility is actually quite necessary for Chinese overseas operations.
For one, there are reportedly around a million Chinese nationals living and working in Africa. Were Chinese nationals to need to evacuate parts of East Africa quickly, the Chinese military does need facilities to help do that.
This is no idle wish based on paranoia, either; in 2011, China had to evacuate more than 35,000 nationals from Libya, leaving behind billions of dollars in machinery, abandoned projects and broken contracts.
The strategically located facility in Djibouti could be a valuable staging point for Chinese rescue operations in the future, like in 2015, when a Chinese military ship rescued some 225 non-Chinese nationals from Yemen.
Secondly, China has a substantial number of its soldiers and engineers engaged in United Nations peacekeeping operations on the continent. At the moment, China has around 2,500 soldiers, engineers and police deployed in peacekeeping operations around the world, with a significant portion deployed in Africa.
These peacekeepers need to be resupplied routinely, and having a permanent base in Djibouti could be helpful for doing so, especially given the newly completed (and Chinese-funded) railway from Djibouti to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Third, the Chinese Navy has been in need of a local resupply dock since it began counter-piracy efforts in earnest in 2008. Its ships have been active participants in international campaigns to stamp out piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Having a reliable port of call in the area near its operational theater is vital to smooth operation.
Although these are all reasonable asks, we should be careful not to let our guard down; as a Center for Naval Analyses report noted, one of the main motivations for the Chinese base’s location is its proximity to Camp Lemonnier, our largest military installation on the continent. Espionage is not out of the question and should not be tolerated.
This first Chinese overseas base is, although seemingly exciting, probably not that big a deal for American interests.
Not yet, at least.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.