China on Wednesday dispatched troops to its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. This is being seen as a major step forward for the country's expansion of its military presence abroad. Ships carrying Chinese military personnel departed from Zhanjiang in southern China's Guangdong Province.
The base will ensure China's performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and West Asia. It 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, a report on the website of China’s defence ministry states.
China signed an initial 10-year lease for the base and will pay $20 million per year in rent. It started building the base, which is the country's first naval base abroad, last year and it will be stationed just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US base in Africa since 2002. Djibouti also hosts troops from France and Japan. The US pays $63 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier.
The US Department of Defense had said in a report that the base, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, reflects and amplifies China's growing influence. The Chinese defence ministry however, rejected the assessment, saying "China is not doing any military expansion and does not seek a sphere of influence."
Beijing seeks to gain access to natural resources and open new markets and therefore, it has made extensive infrastructure investments throughout the African continent.
Djibouti might have been chosen because of its relative stability and its strategic location, 20 miles across from war-consumed Yemen and in destroyer range of the pirate-infested western edge of the Indian Ocean, according to this article in The Huffington Post.
Since 2014, Djibouti has been seen as a strategic location offering some of the most prime military real estate, according to PRI. Major militaries of the world seek a presence there to shore up regional stability and to counter piracy threatening the trade route. Its location, near the Mandeb Strait and the Suez-Aden canal, aids global commerce. These places see almost 10 percent of the world's oil exports.
However, Chinese officials have downplayed the importance of the Djibouti base. They say that it will largely support anti-piracy operations. Beijing also said that China was not budging from its "defensive" military policy and that the base did not indicate an "arms race or military expansion," The New York Times reported.
Threat to US Camp Lemonnier?
China's expanding presence and its base at Djibouti is a matter of concern for the US. The Huffington Post quoted political analyst Lai Yueqian as saying, "The base can be used to pin down the United States and any US-led organisations." If the US wants to intervene against China's interests, they will have to think carefully, because China will use their military to protect their citizens and their property, he added.
US' Camp Lemonnier is home to about 4,000 personnel and some of them are involved in secret missions, including targeted drone killings in West Asia and the Horn of Africa, according to Boston Globe. With the Chinese base coming up in Djibouti, the US harbours concerns that they can scope out some of the military strategies of Washington.
With Chinese banks being the major funders of at least 14 projects in the tiny nations, valued at about $14.4 billion, US officials wonder about the long-term durability of the US-Djibouti alliance. The US has also been using its base to provide technical and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi militia in Yemen.
China has plans to grow its navy to 351 ships by 2020, according to a report published in Business Insider. The 2014 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in the report, "Given China’s growing navy and the US Navy's planned decline in the size of its fleet, the balance of power and presence in the region is shifting in China’s favour."
Should India be wary of the Chinese base?
While countering the US may be an objective that can be fulfilled in the far off future, the immediate aim is to focus on the vicinity. The Chinese Navy’s growing presence should also rattle India.
The Hindustan Times reported that with Djibouti, China has stepped up activity in the Indian Ocean, which India considers within its sphere of influence. Beijing is also building ports and other infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
China also plans to take over the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as part of a debt swap to firm up its naval operations in the Indian Ocean, much to the disquiet of India.
Placed at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean, the naval base represents the "first pearl of a necklace". India feels it is part of China's strategy to encircle the Indian subcontinent with the help of military alliances in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as The Times of India points out.
The report of China sending its troops to Djibouti comes soon after India, Japan and the United States completed their joint maritime exercise. Although the Indian officials have dismissed reports that the exercise is being targeted at Beijing, the Chinese media has said that the exercises may be a concern for them because the Indian Ocean Region is considered economically important for Asia's largest economy.
This growing partnership has forced China closer to Pakistan, according to Newsweek. Pakistan already hosts the China-built Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. China also continues to assert vast territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. China’s growing military is expected to help it in countering the disputes involving South China and East China Sea.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 14:28:57 IST