When is a military base not a base? When China owns it

December 01, 2015 09:08
A Chinese family among 500 evacuees from war-torn Yemen arrive in Djibouti aboard a Chinese naval vessel in March. Photo: Xinhua

After decades of priding itself on not having a single Chinese soldier on foreign soil (except for those serving with UN peacekeeping forces) and having no overseas military bases, China is somewhat awkwardly acknowledging it is making a 180-degree turn by acquiring military facilities in far-off Djibouti, in northern Africa near the Gulf of Aden.

It is a logical move.

The Chinese navy has been conducting antipiracy missions off Somalia since 2008.

Its warships have conducted numerous escort missions, not confined to Chinese vessels.

The need for a facility close by, where ships can refuel, take on supplies, be cleaned and repaired if necessary, and where the men can rest, is clear.

And yet, China is handling very gingerly the announcement of its facility in Djibouti, where the United States and France already have bases.

That is because China has always linked the idea of military bases with seeking hegemony and interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

China is shunning the word “base”, preferring “logistical facility”, even though the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, disclosed in May that his government was negotiating with China about a military base.

The thing is, China likes to distinguish itself from other countries, particularly western ones, which it sees as tainted with desire for power and expansion of territory.

For more than 40 years, China has repeatedly promised the world that it would “never seek hegemony” and “never be a superpower”.

Last Saturday, the Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, tried to distinguish between China’s “facility” and the American “base”.

“China has no military ambition in Djibouti,” the headline proclaimed, implying that others do.

“Logistical facilities may not appear absolutely different from military bases on the surface,” the newspaper said, “but the motives behind set them apart.”

The Global Times said: “China has no intention of building a military base from which to launch a military strike at a certain Middle Eastern foe.

“It will not seek to become an empire by building military bases and project its military clout around the world.”

Chinese motives, it seems, unlike those of its western counterparts, are still pure, even after the acquisition of military bases.

Beijing’s evident sensitivity stems from the fact that Djibouti is not only its first military facility in Africa but its first in the world.

After having depicted US military bases as a tool of American hegemonism, China now has to explain that its base is different.

This is also important because Djibouti is unlikely to be the only Chinese overseas military facility for very long, as Chinese commercial interests now reach every corner of the globe and, in an inversion of the adage that trade follows the flag, the Chinese navy will soon be omnipresent.

A white paper on defense issued six months ago gave the military a key task: “to safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests”.

The Chinese are avoiding use of the term “base” because they know that their words are being carefully parsed -- not least because, in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s declaration in Washington that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of its artificial islands in the South China Sea, Chinese officials have announced that military facilities will be installed on the islands but that such actions do not constitute militarization.

Much of what China did in the past was, in fact, simply making a virtue out of necessity.

It lacked the capability to do certain things, such as having a military presence around the world, and denounced those who did.

Today, its capabilities have increased tremendously, and it tends to behave like other big powers.

But, instead of simply changing its stance, it tries to have the best of both worlds: behaving like a big power while keeping its rhetoric unchanged.

Thus, on the issue of intelligence gathering in the exclusive economic zone of another country, China now exercises its new capability by sending warships close to Guam and Hawaii while continuing to insist that US surveillance ships must stay out of China’s EEZ.

The first premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, in office from 1949 until his death in 1976, used to take pride in being a man of his word and insisted that China was a country that could be relied on to keep its word.

As he said on more than one occasion, “We Chinese mean what we say.”

Nowadays, Chinese officials sometimes resort to subterfuges, and often no one can be sure what they are saying.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.