Chinese Naval Base in Africa: Sabre Rattling or Protection of the Economic Interests?

The Chinese government approved the construction of its first naval base in Africa, also its first base abroad. The Djibouti base, which will contain maintenance facilities, weapons, fuel and military detachments, will have an area of 0.4 square kilometers (0.15 square miles). The base is 13 kilometers from the US military base in Djibouti. 

China’s decision to build the base is an expected step, according to Vladimir Petrovsky, a researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, told in an interview.

“This is first of all the defense of China’s economic interests and oil transport routes. China is one of the chief consumers of Middle Eastern oil, and the main routes go through Djibouti. This country is very well-placed geographically, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula,” Petrovsky said.

Petrovsky noted that the presence of Chinese naval vessels in the region is nothing new. The Chinese Navy already took part in regional operations against Somali pirates in 2008.

China also has a large volume of investments in African countries, estimated to be as much as $40 billion, including large-scale infrastructure projects. Therefore, the next logical step would be to have a port in Africa to maintain and resupply naval ships, as well as the merchant navy, according to Petrovsky. The base itself will have special facilities, hangars, road access and a port.

“China has important economic interests in Africa, and now there is a need to defend those interests,” Petrovsky noted, reminding that there have been several incidents, in which Chinese workers and engineers have been kidnapped in South Sudan.

The Chinese government has also conducted evacuations of its citizens in Yemen and Libya. With a base, such operations are much easier to carry out. China also has peacekeeping units in Africa, taking part in UN-mandated operations.

Petrovsky also noted that China’s new installation in Djibouti cannot be considered a full-fledged naval base, but rather a logistics center. The base will also contain a limited contingent of Chinese special forces soldiers to guard the base and assist Chinese citizens in case of evacuation.

According to the researcher, “the dislocation of any kind of large force in Djibouti is not foreseen, this is mostly a logistics installation”.

He also noted that China has its own strategy for naval development, which includes the creation of a strategic blue water navy. However, China is creating the blue water navy not to flex muscles, but to defend its strategic interests.

Touching upon the Russian-Chinese joint naval exercises Joint Sea 2016, scheduled to take place on September 11-19 in the South China Sea, Petrovsky noted that they are not aimed against other countries:  “This is a procedure planned ahead of time. It is also an important and sensitive route of international trade, tied to the supply of oil and goods. The main goal of the exercises is providing right of passage for commercial ships”.

When it comes to the reaction of regional states to the Russian-Chinese exercises, Petrovsky said that everything depends on interpretation. There are territorial disputes in the region, and the Philippines are themselves a US ally, with US military base on its soil.

“If there is a desire to do so, this could be interpreted as some sort of confrontational attempt, which I would advise against. China has taken part in numerous international naval exercises, including ones that the Americans also took part in,” Petrovsky concluded.

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