By Mian Sanaullah*
China’s first overseas military base is set to become operational soon in Djibouti. The base has been under construction since 2011. Xinhua News network has officially described the move as “a support base” ensuring China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and West Asia.
In Diplomatic circles, the move reflects a paradigm shift in Chinese Foreign Policy. The present era of uncertainty marked by multi-polar world and gradually declining American willingness or ability to deal with global issues has largely influenced the Chinese policy and behaviour. It is China’s first step towards becoming an international military power.
India, Japan, US and some other countries in South China Sea region have always suspected that as soon as China finds itself in a comfortable position as an economic power with naval outreach capability, it might station its troops abroad. These countries are now reading a lot between the lines.
They claim that the move would engender new risks and challenges. China would initially project it as if it were essential to protect China’s overseas tasks. But later, it would use the same to assert its geo-strategic interests in the global context; in direct competition with the US and its allies.
China always prides itself on the decades old policy of not stationing its troops on foreign soil. Much before its ‘century of humiliation’, China pursued benign tributary system of Imperial China in East Asia, asserting its dominion. In view of its unrivalled prosperity, China will naturally seek a re-set in its global position in line with its diplomatic preponderance. China appears to be doing so by fortifying its economic connectivity with regional countries as a priority. India, Japan and US tend to malign the strategy as hostile and provocative.
Characterizing it as a “string of pearls” – a phrase coined in a 2004 Booz Allen study for the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Net Assessments – India feels that China has been cultivating India’s neighbors, both to protect its economic and security interests and to balance a “rising India.” In the midst of such propaganda, the Djibouti base is bound to raise apprehensions, as it is only at a distance of two-day’s sail from Gwadar port that China is now developing.
Why at this stage has China decided to flex its muscles when new alliances are still in an embryonic form and threats like ISIS, chaos in Middle East and terrorism require a united global response. The Chinese response has been, “the base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese, and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways”.
The location of Djibouti on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean is, to say the least, very strategic. It is part of “The Horn of Africa”, an eastern most extension of Africa, which juts into the Arabian Sea, sideways along the southern region of the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti’s position offers access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point and connects the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond. It is one of the world’s most important sea-lanes, millions of barrels of oil and petroleum products pass through the strait daily (GlobalSecurity.org).
Sophie Williams (Mailonline) finds the base ‘ideally located for China’s interests, giving them a foothold in both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, putting them in easy reach of the Middle East’. Edward Paice, Director of the London-based Africa Research Institute, thinks that a base in Djibouti makes a lot of sense for China, just as it does for Japan or US.
Due to Djibouti’s location, it is no wonder that this tiny desert country hosts French, Japanese and US bases. Saudi Arabia is also establishing its base there. The US base, with 3,000 military personnel and contractors, is only four miles from the Chinese one. The US military has already expressed its ‘concerns’ over the Chinese base to the Djibouti government.
In March, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of AFRICOM, admitted (in Senate Armed Services Committee) that he had met with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh ‘and told him that ‘some of the things that are important to us about what the Chinese should not do at that location.’ In April, US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Djibouti. Inter alia, he also discussed the Chinese base.
China has been focusing on its Navy, primarily because of its issues in South China Sea and safeguarding its economic interests. It rebuilt its first aircraft carrier (with a capacity of 50,000 ton) and launched it in April 2017 (Washington Post). The new carrier is part of an ambitious expansion of the Chinese navy, which is projected to have a total of 265-273 warships, submarines and logistics vessels by 2020, according to the Washington-based Center for Naval Analysis. China is believed to be planning to build at least two and possibly as many as four additional carriers.
Many critics find it alarming when Chinese media does not stop urging and ‘advising’ the PLA Navy to build as many as 18 overseas naval military bases in the greater Indian Ocean area, possibly including: Chongjin port (North Korea), Moresby port (Papua New Guinea), Sihanoukville port (Cambodia), Koh Lanta port (Thailand), Sittwe port (Myanmar), Dhaka port (Bangladesh), Gwadar port (Pakistan), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Seychelles, Djibouti port (Djibouti), Lagos port (Nigeria), Mombasa port (Kenya), Dar-es-Salaam port (Tanzania), Luanda port (Angola) and the Walvis Bay port (Namibia).
No doubt, China is a rich country. By 2030, its economy could grow twice the size of America’s. But constructing even 1/4 of these military bases are not a child’s play. The construction for Djibouti started in 2011 and took six years to complete. The rise of previous hegemons, notably the UK in the 19th century and the US in the 20th century, according to Gaiko – the leading Japanese publication on foreign policy issues-, is marked by ‘a significant time lag between their emergence as great economic powers and their subsequent arrival as major hegemonic powers’ enjoying broader political, cultural and military as well as economic influence. China probably will go through the same process. Hence, there is no chance that anytime soon the ‘string of pearls’ will start hurting India or Japan.
Even CNN is worried that many analysts are indulging in ‘gross simplifications and misreading’ of the relevance and meaning of hundreds of years of Chinese thought and behaviour’ to understand how a strong China will behave and view the world in the future.
China may be mindful of how the Western powers – British, French, and Americans – entered China in ships across the South China Sea and humiliated the Imperialist China for over 100 years. It does not make sense if China apprehends a repeat of the 19th century in the 21st century when the objective conditions are different. China does not see any US led attack on its mainland.
The China state-run Global Times said, “Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It makes sense, there is attention on this from foreign public opinion”. China’s military development is about protecting its own security. “It’s not about seeking to control the world.”
India, indeed, is increasingly concerned about China’s efforts to build ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, believing that China ultimately intends to use the ports to extend its naval presence and could potentially use them for military purposes.
Recent visits by Chinese submarines to Pakistani and Sri Lankan ports have further stoked Indian concerns. While the Chinese presence at Gwadar may not pose a direct military threat to India, they reflect China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean Region and provide China the ability to monitor Indian naval movements as well as secure an alternate energy supply line.
Writer is a former Ambassador ( firstname.lastname@example.org)