UNITED NATIONS — Nearly six hundred years ago, huge Chinese fleets plied the Indian Ocean sailing as far as Arabia and the East African coast.
The epic seaborne expeditions carried out between 1405 and 1432 under Adm. Cheng Ho and during the glorious Ming Dynasty were larger and far more encompassing than subsequent Portuguese and Dutch voyages almost a century later. China’s Imperial Court sought trade, tribute, and exotic treasures, not formal colonization nor religious conversion.
A decade ago, sleek modern vessels of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China’s maritime military arm, joined American, British, and Dutch vessels on UN sanctioned anti-piracy missions off the Somali coast. Modern day Somali pirates, linked to criminal and terrorist networks were attacking merchant shipping. The ongoing anti-piracy efforts have largely stopped the source of piracy.
Now the Beijing government has set up a formal military base on the African continent; the first of its kind by the People’s Republic of China. The base in Djibouti under construction is officially dubbed as a logistics center.
Why Djibouti? Well look at the map.
It’s the geographic Pivot point along the Maritime Silk Road linking the Indian Ocean with Africa and the Middle East. It equally anchors the PRC military’s “string of pearls” bases in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan which seek both to outflank India and to protect China’s petroleum lifeline.
This tiny former French colony sits astride the Bar Al Mandeb, a vital shipping channel connecting Suez in the North with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the south.
Djibouti’s geostrategic position is all about location, location, location. Think of Gibraltar or Singapore without the prosperity. Significantly, 80 percent of the world petroleum transits the Indian Ocean via a series of maritime “choke points.” Thus, China’s proximity to the southern reaches of the Red Sea is not coincidental.
Djibouti is a poor country on the Horn of Africa dependent on leasing military base facilities to the United States and France and now China. The Chinese base under construction stands only three miles from a U.S. facility Camp Lemonnier, which hosts 4,000 American military personnel. China is equally investing $185 million in Djibouti’s commercial seaport.
Currently there are one million Chinese civilians working on infrastructural projects in Africa
such as railroads, roads and ports in Kenya and Ethiopia. There’s also a spate of small commercial enterprises. In 2015 when Yemen fell into civil war, Chinese navy ships evacuated Chinese citizens who were marooned in Aden and brought them to safety in Djibouti.
China maintains a close commercial partnership with both Angola and Sudan. It’s largely about oil exports to fuel China’s economy. The new Djibouti base is near the southern reaches of the Red Sea guarding the sea route from Port Sudan. China is Africa’s largest trading partner with over $160 billion in commerce.
Beijing’s growing footprint on the African continent comes in parallel to China’s widening commitment to UN Peacekeeping operations. While the PRC’s attitude towards peacekeeping was once ambivalent, in the past decade, China has become a significant financial donor and troop contributor to the UN’s far-flung peacekeeping operations.
Currently China has over 2,500 forces in the field in South Sudan and Mali among others. Most of the troops are engineering units. China is now the largest Peacekeeping contributor of the UN Security Council’s powerful five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
The state run China Daily newspaper stresses the logistical role of the new Djibouti base but adds tellingly the facility shall “fuel its expanding naval presence in the world that is for the purpose of safeguarding its expanded overseas interests and world peace.” In other words provide logistical support for Beijing’s expanding military mission in the Indian Ocean.
China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route is developing in parallel with her military’s growing capacity for force projection. Djibouti is one of those pieces that fits into the larger puzzle of the PRC’s geo-strategic chess game.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]