The recent official opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti should be seen in the context of the Chinese naval presence expansion in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and the coming change of China’s role in global and regional security.
The Chinese media coverage of the base opening is controversial. On the one hand, there is a desire not to attract excessive attention to this event, emphasizing that this is a purely logistic, technical facility in Djibouti. On the other hand, the Chinese media poorly concealed pride and understanding of the high significance of what happened. That is why the solemn ceremony of deployment of troops to the base was held on August 1, on the 90th anniversary of the PLA, although the base was probably ready for operations and got military personnel some time before.
The base is a logistics facility where personnel of the rear services of the Chinese navy is deployed with a small security unit (up to a company with light armored vehicles). It cannot be ruled out that there are also radio-electronic reconnaissance units from the Strategic Missile Forces of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Given the degree of concentration of US military forces and their allies in Djibouti, such a move looks rather natural.
Judging by the photo of the solemn opening, the total strength of the stationed personnel can be estimated at about 300 people, however, it may be further increased. The base area is 0.5 square kilometers. Chinese officials insist that it is not necessary to use the word “base”" in relation to this facility.
According to the official Chinese point of view, the facility in Djibouti is a “logistics center” (后勤 保障 设施), which “is far from” the scale of a real naval base. If the goal of such a game was to reassure politicians abroad by the terms of the media, the achieved result could be completely opposite.
Consciously or not, the PLA adopted the Soviet terminology to define its military presence in the world. In Soviet propaganda, the notion of a “foreign military base” was endowed with a strong negative meaning, so the USSR used a number of cumbersome verbal constructions to indicate the presence of its forces abroad. One of them was the punkt materialno-tehnicheskogo obespechenia (PMTO). According to Soviet propagandists, the use of the PMTO term allowed to lower the significance of foreign military facilities, to stress their auxiliary, technical, “non-aggressive” nature.
In reality, however, the largest Soviet PMTO-922, located in the Bay of Cam Ranh in Vietnam, was a huge military base of 100 square kilometers with 6,000 personnel. The PMTO-922 had a powerful defense system, which included a mixed air force regiment (with Tu-16 bombers and MiG-23 fighters) and a detachment of ships to guard the water area. Another example of a major PMTO with a powerful defense system could be the Nokri base on the Ethiopian Dahlak archipelago in the Red Sea.
Other PMTOs were far less ambitious and significant. The only foreign PMTO inherited by Russia after the collapse of the USSR was the PMTO-720 in the Syrian port of Tartus. Prior to the Russian entry into the Syrian war, it consisted of two floating piers, one of which was defective, and the other was used to moor repair vessels coming from Russia. On the shore, there was an administrative building, barracks and several warehouse and buildings. Constantly located staff consisted of several people.
Whatever it was, in the Soviet political language of the Cold War era, the PMTO was the equivalent of the “military base.” The use of this term by the Chinese can be an awkward propaganda technique. But it is quite possible that we are talking about the adoption of one of the external attributes of the retired Soviet military superpower.
The base in Djibouti will make it possible to raise the presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean to a new level, which is already very significant. In addition to the permanent detachment of surface ships in the area of the Horn of Africa (usually two or three destroyers with a frigate and an auxiliary vessel), the PRC regularly sends to the Indian Ocean diesel electric and nuclear submarines.
Previously, their supply in the open sea was carried out by high-speed transport of the PLA Navy, which was inconvenient, expensive and imposed restrictions on the number of warships that China could simultaneously keep in the area. Now these restrictions are removed. As a result, there are opportunities to change the balance of forces between the Chinese navy present in the region and the forces of China’s opponents, for example, India.
At the same time, China is stepping up military use of other ports in the Indian Ocean, such as Pakistan’s Gwadar, where the constant presence of two or three Chinese warships will be maintained on a rotating basis.
The desire of the Chinese to increase their military presence in the Indian Ocean is easy to understand. Here are the vital arteries for the Chinese economy, through which the PRC receives Middle Eastern and African tankers and delivers its goods to Europe and, to a large extent, the Russian markets. On the other hand, China cannot afford to push India to close partnership with the United States. The PRC will have to find a balance between its new role in politics and security in the Indian Ocean and the interests of relations with India.