The First Chinese Military Base in Africa: Djibouti

Camp Lemonier Thunder Dome. image from wikipedia

China is negotiating a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti, an historic development that would see the US and China each have bases in the small nation that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. President Ismail Omar Guelleh says that discussions are “ongoing” and that Beijing is “welcome”.  Djibouti is already home to Camp Lemonnier, the military headquarters used by US Special Forces for covert, anti-terror and other operations in Yemen and in Africa. France, the former colonial master, and Japan also have bases in the port, which is used by many foreign navies to fight piracy in neighbouring Somalia…

China signed a security and defence agreement with Djibouti in February 2014. But a Chinese military base in Djibouti, the first in Africa, “would definitely be historic”, according to David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.  The US was reportedly angry about the conclusion last year of the China-Djibouti defence deal last year. But Shinn predicts that the US will take it in its stride…

China is reportedly considering a permanent military base in Obock, Djibouti’s northern port city.  “China clearly has a goal of building a blue-water navy, which means it will at some point go well beyond the east coast of Africa and the western Indian Ocean, and it has to think — long term — about how it would be able to service its naval vessels as they go further and further, ” he explained.

Camp Lemonnier, home to 4,000 American citizens, is in the south-east of Djibouti. The US in May 2015 signed a 20-year lease, indicating its willingness to stay. Terms of the lease were not disclosed.

A new Chinese deep-sea port in Djibouti…could provide a boost to China’s sphere of influence, which already extends from the South China Sea, along the west coast of Myanmar to the Arabian-Sea coastal port of Gwadar, Pakistan — a major destination in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  “Establishing these deep-sea ports is really about securing its economic interests, projecting influence and securing oil exports from the Gulf region,”…..

Trade between Africa and China, in excess of 200 billion dollars (180 billion euros), is above the continent’s trade with the European Union or the US.  In Djibouti, China is already financing major infrastructure projects estimated to total more than 9 billion dollars (8 billion euros), including improved ports, airports and railway lines….There was speculation that Russia also wanted to establish a presence in Djibouti, but the presence of Russian warships may have created even more controversy in western nations because of the crisis in the Ukraine.

Excerpts  Michel Arseneault, ‘Historic’ Chinese military base to open in Horn of Africa, Agence France Presse, May 11, 2015

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