The Chinese military has long been accused of copying the United States military. From fighter aircraft to missile systems and much more, the use of designs heavily “inspired” by those from across the Pacific have betrayed China’s general weakness. Now, however, China is taking another page straight out of the operational manual of its rivals, which could eventually put it on-par with the US. Since the Cold War, the US has maintained a staggeringly-large number of military bases around the world. Located throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, these bases hold hundreds of aircraft, thousands of troops, and allow the US to project its power globally. China, on the other hand, despite having a massive land army, has been reluctant to position troops abroad, as part of a long-standing policy of non-interference.
All of this however is about to change.
This week, China's Defense Ministry announced the construction of “military supporting facilities” for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the African nation of Djibouti. While the Chinese government has refrained from using the words “military base”, this facility will almost certainly function as China’s first military outpost outside of its core interests in the East Asia/South China Sea region.
To secure the use of this base, the Chinese government has announced the signing of a 10-year lease agreement with Djibouti. The base’s location on the Horn of Africa is highly strategic – so much so that the same small country is also host to a separate US military base with up to 4000 soldiers. A PLAN base in country would enable China to respond to threats in the North and West African regions, and even threats near the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean.
China’s decision to set up its first base here was likely driven by its need to support its continuing anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, as well as to aid the growing number of Chinese nationals living in this region. Such rescue operations were carried out earlier this year in war-torn Yemen, and demonstrated the need for China to have a more permanent presence in this part of the world.
Longer term, this base (and the others which will inevitably follow) represent a shift in China’s foreign policy. With billions of renminbi worth of investment flowing into Africa and the Middle East, China has a vested interest in protecting regional security.
While it has yet to intervene unilaterally, or as part of an international coalition in the region, it is likely that its hand will eventually be forced and China will make the decision to throw around its weight to protect its international investments, like all other world powers in the past. When it comes to this, bases like the one in Djibouti will function as critical launching points.