China to set up 1st overseas naval base in Djibouti next to US airbase

© China Daily
Beijing plans to set up a naval facility in Djibouti, East Africa, to boost counter-piracy and peacekeeping efforts, officials say. The future Chinese installation will be near a US airbase reportedly used for the Pentagon’s drone operations.

Beijing is currently in talks with Djibouti’s government to build a naval facility to support the Chinese Navy’s counter-piracy and peacekeeping missions in the region, China’s top officials told media. They carefully avoided calling the installation a “military base” similar to those maintained by the US worldwide.

Spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry Hong Lei says the “support facilities” will provide “logistical support” to fuel, rest and re-supply Chinese Navy ships, addressing possible speculations the port will boost Beijing’s military expansion in the strategically vital Horn of Africa. 

"The construction of the relevant facilities will help China's navy and army further participate in UN peacekeeping operations, carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance," he told a daily news briefing on Wednesday, Reuters reports.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian also spoke at a monthly news conference, mainly repeating the Foreign Ministry’s comments, but he added an important detail: “China wanted to play a greater role in ensuring regional peace and stability.”

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The announcement comes as Beijing prepares to play a greater role in the world by modernizing its military and navy, and making significant contributions to UN peacekeeping all over the globe. Currently, China is a major provider of peacekeeping troops to Africa, where it has huge economic interests, having invested some $40 billion in the continent over the last 15 years.

Beijing also faces public pressure to protect its citizens overseas, especially after four Chinese were killed by terrorist groups in Syria and Mali last week. It may also need to evacuate its nationals as it did in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in March.

At the same time, Beijing is pushing to build-up a so-called “blue-water navy” able to operate in oceanic waters with a global reach. Over the past few years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has commissioned its first aircraft carrier, “Liaoning,” originally laid down in 1988 for the Soviet Navy. Similar naval programs to build state-of-the-art warships and nuclear submarines are also underway.

A former colony of France, Djibouti already hosts the United States’ only African permanent military base at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Called Camp Lemonnier, it accommodates the Pentagon’s African Command (AFRICOM) and is used for CIA drone operations. It has killed some 3,000 people, mainly civilians, according to the Economist.  

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Djibouti is a gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and has been used by international navies – including China’s – as a base for anti-piracy from neighboring Somalia.