Author: Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Hong Kong Baptist University

China’s decision to build a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval base in Djibouti was approved by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. This constituted a sea change in its foreign policy and security strategy. The base opened in 2017, enhancing China’s global influence and better protecting its security interests far away from its shores, particularly in Africa and the Indian Ocean.

But Beijing is moving carefully, focussing on strengthening its economic footprint in the Horn of Africa without directly challenging the United States and learning step-by-step how to become a full-fledged great power.

In 2015, Beijing preferred to classify its first overseas military base as a ‘logistical facility’, assigning it a limited number of missions. This included participation in UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs), anti-piracy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and humanitarian relief. The Chinese government’s objective was to reassure both Africa and the world about its intentions. The PLA military posted in Djibouti is supposed to concentrate on ‘military operations other than war’ (MOOTW). This concept was adopted by China in 2009 and reasserted in the 2015 white paper on China’s Military Strategy and is described as directly contributing to international security through non-lethal means.

The number of PLA personnel deployed in Djibouti is uncertain, but it is likely small. While some speculate the number of personnel is 10,000, diplomatic sources indicate that it is at most 2000. This a bit higher than the French deployment (1450) but less than half the size of the US deployment (4500). The PLA Navy anti-piracy escort task force makes around ten port calls per year in Djibouti but the PLA contingent prefers to remain discreet. After initially publicising its training exercises, in 2018 it stopped doing so.

Some analysts have pointed out the differences between the PLA logistical facility in Djibouti and military bases from other countries. In their view, the Chinese military posted in Djibouti will not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries — they will only operate under a UN mandate or with the UN’s endorsement.

Now, Djibouti hosts seven foreign militaries on its soil, including 180 personnel from Japan and 80 from Italy. Occasionally, tensions emerge from each military’s close observation of one another. In 2017 China reported that Japanese frogmen were inspecting the hull of a Chinese naval ship too closely. A year later the PLA used lasers to deter US planes from flying too frequently over its naval base. But by and large all the militaries present in Djibouti show restraint, underscoring a shared interest in peaceful coexistence.

More generally — despite the publicity that has surrounded China’s establishment of the PLA outpost — Beijing has tried to minimise the importance of their decision to have a military base in Djibouti.

But Chinese officials now endorse the idea that this ‘logistical facility’ is a military ‘support base’ and that Djibouti is China’s first — but probably not last — ‘overseas strategic strongpoint’. The military presence is being repositioned to protect China’s growing international security interests.

Djibouti’s PLA military base has more diverse missions than initially stated. The base includes personnel from various branches, including marines and special forces. It is equipped with a heliport which can also be used by drones. It also built a 660 metre-long pier, where large PLA ships will soon be able to moor. Underground, the base is equipped with cyber and electronic warfare facilities. The PLA’s new naval base is not limited to MOOTW or protecting strategic sea-lanes of communication. Counterterrorism and intelligence collection are also part of its missions.

Since its opening, China’s Djibouti base has not concentrated on its official missions. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has dropped significantly and is no longer the main reason for the PLA Navy presence in Djibouti. No Chinese PKOs have transited via Djibouti, indicating the base has limited relevance for peacekeeping. The PLA Navy does conduct humanitarian escort missions for World Food Programme shipments to Somalia, but only once a year in cooperation with the European Union. The base instead is used to give Chinese naval crews rest as China enhances its presence in the Indian Ocean and improves its ‘far seas’ capacities, feeding China’s strategic competition with India.

Examining China’s troop training in Djibouti also provides a better idea of its potential usage of the base. Training drills aim to enhance combat capability and prepare for counter-terrorism operations and possible evacuations of overseas Chinese nationals. The PLA’s Djibouti base contributes to securing China’s economic and security interests in Africa, the Middle East and the Red Sea.

But China’s military is still learning. While Djibouti is a useful place for PLA troops to train overseas outside of the UN banner, to date their exercises pose little security threat. More generally, China’s Djibouti-deployed contingent is not very active.

While the PLA’s naval base in Djibouti is helping China gradually become a great power, movement is slow. The PLA is probably thinking of opening another overseas naval base elsewhere, for example in Gwadar, Pakistan. But China’s government will probably digest lessons from Djibouti first. It must learn how to manage its first military outpost overseas, better adjust its purpose and test its missions before establishing another naval base in Asia or in Africa.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan is Professor in Political Science at the Department of Government and International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Hong Kong Baptist University.

This article is drawn from a recent longer paper here in the Journal of Contemporary China.