Djbouti: China's Regional Pivot
First published: 14th September 2017 | Colum Hawken
The Djibouti Base
On the 11th of July, China announced the dispatch of personnel to oversee the opening of a military base in Djibouti, though the Chinese announcement referred to it as a “support base”. This is the first of China’s overseas bases, a departure from the previous model of investment in overseas ports and infrastructure. This prior system of development has been termed the String of Pearls by multiple analysts, and is made up of a series of bases stretching from China to Africa throughout the India Ocean. Therefore, the question should be asked, why Djibouti?
The principal reason for this is down to geography. Djibouti’s practicality is that it can act as a pivotal position, allowing the base to fulfil several missions for Chinese foreign policy. Firstly, as China has said, the base is well positioned to support regional anti-piracy activities. Secondly, Chinese investment in Africa is massive and Djibouti can act as a hub for deployments to protect these investments. Finally, the base can act as a staging post for operations elsewhere such as into the Persian Gulf region and Middle East.
Anti-Piracy and Maritime Control
China has been involved in anti-piracy operations off the East African Coast for several years now. This involvement is important, as it demonstrates China’s utility to other nations as a partner in stabilisation operations and regional security, but at the same time China is reluctant to follow a US lead in these operations. The development of a base at Djibouti allows China further freedom of action in this region, but also risks close runs with western naval forces.
In fact, China might attempt to heighten tensions in this area to overstretch American naval forces in the hope of prompting a withdrawal from the South China Sea. This should be a concern for Western policy makers, as Djibouti is adjacent to the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, which controls access between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. This is an important maritime chokepoint as it vital to global trade, but has been shown to be vulnerable due to the missile capability of Yemeni rebels. In the future, China could utilise this base to supply groups who would threaten maritime trade in this area. Additionally, by increasing the Chinese presence in the area through naval patrols and further bases, the West would likely have to move forces into the area to ensure freedom of navigation. The severing of this line of communication cannot be risked as shipping would be forced around the Cape of Good Hope, damaging global trade and interrupting oil supplies. In order to guard against Chinese interference in this area there will likely need to be reductions in other theatres, potentially in the Asia-Pacific, allowing China greater freedom of action in the South China Sea.
China has two main interests across Africa, her investments throughout the continent, and maintaining access to minerals and other natural resources. These two factors interlock, as investment helps encourage and maintain the flow of raw materials to China stimulating economic growth which allows for further investment. Moreover China has also deployed the PLA as part of a UN peacekeeping force to both South Sudan and Mali. Djibouti is therefore well placed as a hub in East Africa for protecting Chinese interests in the region, as well as facilitating the deployment of forces to gain valuable operational experience.
The Persian Gulf and Further Afield
While Chinese activity in Africa and maritime constabulary are clearly motivating factors in the construction of the Djibouti base, it also provides scope for further activity. Djibouti can act as a pivot to involvement in the Middle East, particularly towards the Persian Gulf. Prior to the Iraq War of 2003, the Middle East was an American regional order. The same cannot be said today, as while the US is still heavily involved in the region, so are other actors. The involvement of Russia and the US along with non-state actors and intra-regional disputes mean that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the region, potentially leaving it ripe for Chinese influence.
China’s interest in the region is clear, as Middle Eastern oil is vital to the Chinese economy, and roughly 40% of China’s oil supply transits the Strait of Hormuz. While Russia is attempting to improve her Eastern Siberian oil production and transportation, it is unlikely that this will mollify Chinese reliance on the Middle East for some time. Therefore, Djibouti could be seen as the first step in China asserting some level of control over the region.
Currently, the Middle East is in turmoil, giving China the opportunity to build itself into the regional security order and potentially secure access for the One Belt, One Road initiative. The reason China has this opportunity is due to three main regional issues. The first, the disintegration of Syria and to lesser extent Iraq. While ISIS in Iraq has largely been defeated as a territorial entity, Syria is still highly fragmented, and Iraq is likely to be racked by instability for the foreseeable future. The second issue is the war in Yemen, which threatens maritime lines of communication and is an arena of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Finally and most recently is the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which potentially puts the Headquarters of US Central Command in jeopardy.
Therefore, while the Djibouti base seems primarily orientated towards maritime operations, it can also be seen as the first step in China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East.
A New String of Pearls?
As mentioned, China has been investing in infrastructure and port facilities throughout the Indian Ocean and Gulf regions. One important facility is the Gwadar port in Pakistan, whose facilities could be converted to military usage relatively quickly. The potential dual use ability of the Gwadar port and now construction of an overt military base at Djibouti suggests that in the future China will increasingly militarise the region. This is the biggest risk that the Djibouti base poses, as it and future developments may start to deny the US access to important logistical hubs. The issue of US access is currently a major problem for Secretary of Defence James Mattis, while a troop surge is contemplated for Afghanistan. Other than the very limited Lapis Lazuli Corridor, the US would be reliant on Pakistan to deploy troops to Afghanistan. As China becomes more involved in the region, particularly with its main partners like Pakistan, the US may be increasingly unable to act in the Indian Ocean region and by extension, Central Asia.
The Chinese base in Djibouti is the natural stepping stone from the previous String of Pearls policy, and signals a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding regions. While it is likely that the base will initially simply support anti-piracy operations and protect Chinese interests in Africa, in the future it is increasingly likely that China will use Djibouti and other outposts to improve her position in the Middle East and control of maritime chokepoints. Currently there is not a major overt military threat from this base, but it does imply a worrying trend in Chinese development.
The Djibouti base not only has ramifications for the US, but also the UK. Less than a year ago, Britain opened a naval base in Bahrain, a move heralded as a return to a role east of Suez. China’s increased presence in the area, and inclination toward militarising the Gulf and Indian Ocean region signals a worrying future trend of increased competition in the area. The UK must not only cooperate with her partners in the region, but also ensure she is able to protect this base without having to substantially redeploy air and naval forces. Moreover, any naval task forces sent to this area must as a prerequisite be capable of defending themselves and their support networks in this increasingly challenging environment. Additionally, asserting a British presence in the Gulf is now a matter of vital importance, as showing both our own capability and solidarity with our allies will bolster the Western position in other disputed environments such as the South China Sea.
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16. Fawaz Kalifah, “Today’s opening of the Royal Navy’s new Bahrain base seriously enhances Britain’s ability to defend the Gulf”, The Telegraph, November 10 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/10/todays-opening-of-the-royal-navys-new-bahrain-base-seriously-enh/
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