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China's Base in Djibouti Means More Than an 'Attribute of a Global Power'

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China is continuing the construction of a military facility in Djibouti, a country situated on the Horn of Africa peninsula, usually called the "gates of Africa."

Recently, Fang Fenghui, Chief of Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, met with his Djiboutian counterpart in Beijing and thanked him for his cooperation in constructing the base.

Helicopter flies over Djibouti harbour as part of city is seen, background - Sputnik International
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This was the second meeting between commanders of the two countries in the last month. In late-November, Fan Changlong, deputy chairman of the Central Military Council of China, visited Djibouti. According to Western media reports, the first Chinese overseas base dominated the agenda of the talks between Changlong and Djiboutian officials.

An agreement to construct a Chinese military facility in Djibouti was reached at a meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh in December 2015.

In late-January 2016, Beijing confirmed the agreement. Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hong Lei said on January 21 that the military base would provide logistic support for the Chinese naval forces in their anti-piracy efforts in the region.

However, Beijing does not describe the facility as a "military base." The Chinese government usually describes the site as a base of material and technical support. On November 30, spokesperson of the Chinese Defense Ministry Yang Yujun noted that the base in Djibouti is aimed to provide support for a Chinese peacekeeping corps deployed to the country.

Currently, there are nearly 800 Chinese peacekeeping personnel in Djibouti. At the same time, the official de-facto confirmed that the facility in Djibouti would be the first China’s overseas military base. Yang Yujun said that he was "not aware of any plans to build bases in other regions, except for Djibouti."

© Photo : Digital Globe/Google Earth Chinese naval outpost
Chinese naval outpost - Sputnik International
Chinese naval outpost

In addition to Chinese forces, there are also French and US military bases in Djibouti. Moreover, personnel from Japan, Germany and Spain are also deployed in the region. The territory is used for fighting piracy. French troops have been in Djibouti since the colonial era, and the American contingent currently numbering 4,000 personnel – since 1999. US forces use the territory to provide support for the military operations in Yemen and Somalia, especially for drone strikes against terrorists.

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By building a military base in Djibouti, China acquires a new attribute as a global power, according to Stanislav Tarasov, a specialist on Africa and the Middle East.

"This is a regular scenario for a country that understands its importance and wants to realize its potential in geopolitical terms. So, everything is logical. First, we saw China’s growing economic potential, and now we’re seeing its growing political influence in the world, including expanding its presence in certain regions," Tarasov said in an interview with Sputnik China.

The expert noted that the first stage of China’s global expansion is economic and includes buying overseas assets and companies. The second stage is geopolitical and includes building military bases.

According to him, China is expanding its presence at a time when the United States is losing its global influence.

"The Americans are losing their political reputation due to their unwillingness to reach a compromise with others. It would be strange if China did not build overseas military bases, especially in such important regions as Djibouti. The geopolitical importance [of this region] is related to its proximity to global trade routes and natural resources transportation channels," Tarasov pointed out.

One of the most important sea routes from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean lies in the region, as well as a route to the south of Africa. The importance of these routes is expected to further increase.

There are two important problems to resolve, including providing security for the region and building a maintenance facility for ships. Moreover, Djibouti could be used to provide logistic access to landlocked Ethiopia as well as to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), an economic alliance comprising 19 members. This is why the Horn of Africa peninsula is sometimes called the gates of Africa.

© Photo : Digital Globe/Google Earth Chinese naval outpost
Chinese naval outpost - Sputnik International
Chinese naval outpost

Yang Mian, an expert at the Center of International Relations at the Chinese Institute of Communications, commented to Sputnik China on the role the base in Djibouti is aimed to play.

"The facility in Djibouti is a base for material and technical and logistic support. It is not a regular military base. This base is being built for material and technical support for the Chinese navy, but it does not have strategic goals. Moreover, the location of the facility is very important. It is situated on Africa’s east coast at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is close to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. All of the above makes the Djibouti port a center of regional logistics," the expert said.

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He added that currently China is taking steps to create an oceanic fleet which requires facilities for material and technical support.

China expanded its presence in Djibouti after a series of major projects. For example, in 2016, China completed construction of a railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, worth $4 billion. In the long-run, the project will be very important for the entire eastern African market. Currently, Chinese companies are building new port facilities in Djibouti worth $500 million.

China’s goal is to strengthen its economic presence in East Africa. This is why the military base in Djibouti would mostly contribute to protecting China’s commercial and business interests in the region, rather than to expanding Beijing’s military presence.

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