11, July 2017
China has dispatched its naval forces to the Horn of Africa to set up an army base in Djibouti, where several global players have a military presence. Members of China’s People’s Liberation Army marked the incident at a ceremony at a naval base in the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang on Tuesday, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced on its website.
China says it will use the base to assist anti-piracy operations, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian relief missions in Africa and western Asia. Beijing also says it will use the base to facilitate military cooperation and joint exercises, as Chinese navy and other services seek to expand their international presence in line with the country’s growing economic and political influence.
The Horn of Africa nation, strategically located in the critical entrance from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, lies at the gateway to the busy Suez Canal waterway and provides a port to neighboring landlocked Ethiopia. The US, France, Japan and several other countries already have a military presence in Djibouti.
In April, US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Djibouti, which houses Camp Lemonnier, the largest known US military base in the African continent. Mattis also discussed the issue of China’s growing influence in Djibouti with officials of the African country.
Touted by military experts as one of the most strategically important US military bases abroad, Camp Lemonnier has been dramatically expanded since it was built in 2001. The number of personnel stationed there, for example, has jumped from 900 to 5,000 since 2002. The US has been using a fleet of drones stationed at the base to conduct bombing missions against several Muslim countries in the region.
Washington has also deployed a number of drones to the Chabelley Airfield, located some 6 miles (9.5km) to the southwest of Djibouti’s capital. China’s military base in Djibouti will be established just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, a decision that Washington says would raise “security concerns.”
In August 2015, Djibouti had reportedly ordered the US to vacate its secondary Obock military base in the country in a bid to turn over the installation to the Chinese military and its contingent of 10,000 troops.
The US Defense Department reportedly paid Djibouti nearly $63 million per year for the use of the Camp Lemonnier military base. However China, reportedly offered Djibouti a far more generous offer, namely the completion of a $3-billion railroad project from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to Djibouti.
The West is concerned that closer ties between Djibouti and China may prompt the African country to impose restrictions on US access to the Camp Lemonnier base, which the US uses to collect intelligence on terrorist groups in the region.