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December 6, 2018

NAVAL RACE: China’s Djibouti Base: A One Year Update. “China’s first overseas military base provides an interesting test case for its global ambitions.”

China has avoided using overt military terminology to describe the base, as Mordechai Chaziza notes, “preferring instead to use the terms ‘support facilities’ or ‘logistical facilities.’” China still maintains that the base is primarily for nonmilitary activities; last year, the state-run news agency Xinhua wrote that “the Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion, and China has no intention of turning the logistics center into a military foothold.” Analysis from Stratfor cast doubt on China’s claim, showing the military base has become heavily fortified with an underground space of 23,000 square meters.

Also, in the year since the base officially opened, it has been party to controversy including the United States. Washington alleged that China was directing powerful lasers from its base at nearby U.S. planes, a nuisance and provocation that injured two airmen. China has denied the allegations.

Much of the tension is attributable to a plethora of countries establishing bases in the Horn of Africa for its geostrategic location. Djibouti offers a prime opportunity for third party state actors to observe and defend international commerce passing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a shipping passage renowned as the fourth most important world chokepoint for oil exports and imports. Because of the strait’s close proximity to Somalia and piracy originating from its shores, state powers have strong incentives to conduct frequent anti-piracy operations.

Because of the opportunity to run anti-piracy missions in addition to counterterrorism and myriad other activities, the United States, France, Japan, and Italy all maintain bases in Djibouti. The United States’ military base in Djibouti – Camp Lemmonier – is its only permanent base on the African continent, with more than 4,000 troops deployed.

If the major nations would just start sinking a lot more pirate ships, there’d quickly be a lot less need for overseas base-building. But I suspect having an ongoing piracy problem makes a great justification for overseas base-building.