China's decision to build logistical facilities for its navy in Djibouti has been downplayed in official statements after it was announced last November, but it represents a clear departure from Beijing’s traditional line not to deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) abroad. Since the foundation of the PRC, the ideological opposition to military bases overseas has been a cornerstone of China's global posture and image in international politics.
Djibouti is another milestone with regards to the use of military power as a foreign policy tool
Today, the protection of “overseas interests” is enshrined in Chinese official documents as a key foreign and security policy priority. It has already led to significant changes in China’s foreign policy practices, with numerous non-combatant evacuation operations over the past decade, a recent involvement in UN peacekeeping combat missions, and regular protection patrols on the Mekong River and in the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is another milestone with regards to the use of military power as a foreign policy tool.
During his press conference on the sidelines of the People's National Congress earlier in March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi linked the Djibouti agreement to the growth of China's global interests. Wang Yi said that China was “trying to build some necessary infrastructure and logistical capacities in regions with a concentration of Chinese interests” to respond “to actual needs and the wishes of the countries in question”. This suggests that Djibouti is rather a new beginning than an end in itself.
Last May, China’s latest white paper on the country’s military strategy had stressed that “China's national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue”. The white paper added that “In response to the new requirement coming from the country's growing strategic interests, the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China's overseas interests”.
It had been rumoured earlier that China had approached India for securing a port facility, signalling that Beijing had no military ambitions outside of supporting its forces in a cooperative environment with other nations interested by the safeguard of law and order. Resisting Islamabad’s call for opening a naval base in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, Beijing has chosen Djibouti. Like the rumoured request to India, the choice of Djibouti is a smart diplomatic move that seeks to demonstrate that China has no hidden agenda for establishing a military outpost. China has picked a location where the US, France and Japan already have military facilities – Japan being a particularly interesting point of reference given its strategic rivalry with China and its own constraints on deploying military assets overseas. China had had the choice of going it alone in Oman. Instead, Beijing chose to go alongside its strategic rivals in an already cramped space where the PLA cannot hide anything.
The operational need makes perfect sense. The PLAN flotilla has used Djibouti many times since it initiated its anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008. Djibouti was also the destination of China’s first military evacuation carried out entirely by its Navy from Yemen in March 2015, an operation which probably helped accelerate China's decision to settle in Djibouti. In addition to a naval facility, a Chinese company is already involved in the construction of a new airstrip in the tiny nation.
Several questions remain. Will China use Djibouti to deploy its air forces to conduct air patrols over the Gulf of Aden as Japan does and to airlift troops and citizens from other parts of Africa as it did during the 2011 Libyan evacuation? Will China deploy and station special forces? China's doctrine regarding the overseas deployment of military units on counterterrorism missions has already changed since the adoption of the Country's first anti-terrorism law last December. And will China seek similar agreements with other African nations as some unofficial Chinese sources already suggest?
The mainstream discourse of Chinese experts stresses the key difference between logistical facilities and military bases overseas, and there is an effort to dismiss concerns that China is being assertive and expansionist. At the same time, the role of the Chinese military in helping support non-combatant evacuations has been welcomed in Europe as a new direction that offers cooperation opportunities on security issues in a volatile area. Therefore, China’s presence in Djibouti can be seen as an opportunity for European nations to explore military cooperation with the PLA.
There have already been three joint exercises have been conducted between the EU Atalanta mission in the Gulf of Aden and the PLA Navy but their diplomatic significance was arguably stronger than their operational usefulness. The UK is already advanced in exploring the potential – and the limits – of the protection of nationals overseas to develop security cooperation with China. The PLA’s presence in Djibouti is creating a new reality on the ground that will make such developments natural.
Alexandre Sheldon-Duplaix is a researcher at the French Defence Historical Service.