Why China wants an overseas military base

May 18, 2015 10:33
A Spanish warship on an anti-piracy mission docks at the French military base in Djibouti earlier this month. Photo: AFP

China is on its way to establishing its first overseas military base, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh said China was negotiating to build a military base in his country, AFP reported May 9.

“France’s presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region,” Guelleh said.

“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy, and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome.”

China did not deny the report.

At the daily news conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs May 11, spokeswoman Hua Chunying, in response to a request to confirm the news, said: "We have noted the relevant report. China and Djibouti enjoy traditional friendship. Friendly cooperation between the two countries has achieved constant growth in recent years, with practical cooperation carried out in various fields.”

This reply, in the typical Chinese way, serves as an indirect confirmation.

If this military base in the Horn of Africa comes into being, it will be China's first one overseas.

Some countries are apparently uneasy with this.

Lawmakers and officials in the United States and Japan have warned against China's growing ambition to expand its influence globally.

However, China’s attempt to set up a military base in Djibouti is not surprising. It is just following other countries in doing so.

Djibouti is already home to Camp Lemonnier, the US military headquarters on the continent, used for covert, anti-terror and other operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa, AFP said.

France and Japan also have bases in the former French colony, which guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and has been used by European and other foreign navies as a base in the fight against pirates from neighboring Somalia.

China joined the international naval escort off the Gulf of Aden in late 2008, and its flotilla needs supplies and rest during the mission.

Years of escort experience sheds light on the importance of having a military base controlled by China so that it does not need to always share a base with others.

In fact, in the past few years, there have been discussions among Chinese experts on the necessity of setting up a military base in Africa.

Academics have discussed Seychelles, Tanzania and Eritrea as countries with which China could seek to cooperate to set up such a base.

Therefore, the news of China working on its first overseas military base does not come as a shock.

China’s selection of Africa as home to its first overseas military base makes good sense.

First, its choices are limited.

Apart from African countries, which have a traditional friendship with China, Pakistan is one of the very few other options.

But setting up a military base in neighboring Pakistan would be a sensitive issue given the recent territorial disputes between China and several of its other neighbors both on land and sea, including the Philippines, Japan and India, Pakistan’s arch-rival.

It would be very likely to trigger strong criticism, enhanced vigilance and even a new military race.

By comparison, China increasing its military presence in Africa won’t be that sensitive.

The country has more than a million citizens now working and living in the continent, and they, like many other expats, often face the threat of political, military and social turmoil there.

Calls for China to have an overseas military base in Africa increased after the Chinese government needed to protect its citizens during the turmoil in Libya and Yemen.

Against this backdrop, China’s wish to have a military base in Africa could receive international understanding and sympathy, if not support.

In addition, Africa’s openness toward, and sometimes reliance on, a foreign military presence paves the way for China to expand its own presence. After all, Djibouti is already home to bases of the US, France and Japan.

Starting with Djibouti, it is likely that China will extend its influence in conjunction with its national strategy of “one road, one belt”.

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The writer is an economic commentator. He writes mostly on business issues in Greater China.