China’s growing military profile in Africa is following its economic footprint in the continent as exemplified by the Chinese “logistics support base” in Djibouti. It is moving towards an ever more expansive definition of its global interests, as its business in Africa pushes it to create new mechanisms for securing those interests, including its own growing military footprint abroad. This brief examines the changing nature of China’s involvement with the continent, analysing the present economic priorities and how they have motivated China to play a larger role in African peace and security.
On 11 July 2017, China sent military troops to Djibouti to help set up its newly constructed naval base in the tiny African nation.[i] The two vessels, carrying Chinese troops and departing from China’s Zhanjiang port, were the Jinggangshan and Donghai Island; the former is an amphibious transport vessel, able to load helicopters, special troops and serve in protective convoys, and the latter is capable of rescue missions and assistance in ship repair. The construction of the Djibouti naval base—China’s first military base abroad—has generated varied reactions around the world. The base is seen as a move pushing China’s own limits to its foreign policy, and underscores its growing security profile in Africa.
Referred to as a “logistics support base” by the Chinese Defence Ministry, this new facility in Djibouti is designed to “carry out cooperation with and provide assistance to Djibouti in the areas of international peacekeeping, personnel training, medical service, equipment maintenance, and emergency rescue and disaster relief.” Since 2008, the Chinese Navy has been involved in anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, and the Djibouti base is intended to provide logistical support for those activities. The Global Times has highlighted other benefits derived from the base, such as rent money and jobs for Djiboutians, protection for China’s plans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), provision of food supplies to ships, and an insurance against disruption by the local population.
This new military foray in Africa, as explained by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference in 2016, was part of China’s willingness to “play a constructive role in the political settlement of international and regional issues, so as to create a more secure and stable environment for China’s development overseas”, and to “take on more international security responsibilities.” “China will not take the old path of expansionism followed by traditional powers”, said Wang at the same event.
Chinese sources have often asserted that the foreign policy of their country is “defensive” in nature, and does not support military expansion. Nonetheless, some countries feel threatened by its new presence in Africa. In India, reports reflect a concern for the country’s vulnerability to its northern neighbour’s military activity in the Indian Ocean region. The US, for its part, worries that its own activities are now open to Chinese surveillance. Camp Lemonnier, the American military base in Djibouti, is only a few miles away from the new Chinese base.
Indeed, China’s growing military profile in Africa is following its economic footprint in the continent.Over the last two decades, Beijing has been investing significantly in developing economic linkages with Africa.