China’s new military and logistical base in Djibouti has put other foreign powers on edge, but observers believe China’s strategy in the region is more about economic growth than military might.
After months of anticipation since announcing plans for its first foreign base, China opened what it calls a logistical facility on August 1. The base will be used mainly to resupply ships moving through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and support humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in East Africa, China has said.
Satellite photos, however, have led to speculation about a large underground area where unseen equipment may be stored, and the facility could shift the balance of power in the region.
Janet Eom, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ China-Africa Research Initiative, said the base is part of China’s plan to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion plan to link China with 68 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe through trade deals and infrastructure projects. The initiative was first announced in 2013 and includes a Chinese presence around the east coast of Africa.
Products that China wants to ship are based in the region, so it makes sense to expand the infrastructure to transport them. But the Djibouti facility is also a sign of China diversifying its engagement and avoiding restrictions on its presence, Eom said.
“This might be the start of some more military, security-related bases,” she told VOA.
Currently, China mainly imports minerals and oil from Africa, but its long-term plan is to build factories on the continent and move some of its manufacturing there to take advantage of the cheaper labor and geographic position.
China’s ambitions have fueled concern in India, which has watched its neighbor’s presence grow in the Indian Ocean. In a strategy known as the “string of pearls,” China already has military and commercial links with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
“Because India has always viewed the Indian Ocean region as its domain, and as China increasingly has more economic interest and a large military presence in the region, India is going to have deeper and deeper concerns about its presence,” said Darshana Baruah, a research analyst with Carnegie India.
Others say the speed with which China is executing its strategy in the region caught India off guard and may prompt countermeasures. “The base in Djibouti is like a game changer in terms of the security environment, and India is worried about it,” Baruah said.
China’s expansion has also garnered the attention of the U.S., which has its own base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. France and Japan also have military bases in Djibouti.
“The United States will be concerned about the possibility of espionage, including electronic espionage, but will likely also be very closely observing the Chinese,” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said in an email response to VOA’s Mandarin Service.
For China, the Djibouti base represents a shift to a more dual role in its global expansion — one that focuses on economics as well as military and logistics support.
“We’re going to see more of these types of facilities in other places,” said Lindsey Ford, director of political-security affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Some of these aren’t going to look like bases. They’re going to look like dual use, civilian sort of access [facilities] where also you can get access for military vessels as well.”