Sailors with the Chinese navy stand on the deck of a missile frigate in Manila on April 13, 2010. The Chinese regime is building a military base in Djibouti that will extend its military reach. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)Sailors with the Chinese navy stand on the deck of a missile frigate in Manila on April 13, 2010. The Chinese regime is building a military base in Djibouti that will extend its military reach. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s first overseas military base—located at a critical choke point for global trade looking to navigate the Suez Canal—could be a geopolitical game changer, but it has less impact in military terms.

Establishing the Djibouti base at the Horn of Africa signals the Chinese regime’s long-term strategic intentions, say experts. A Chinese Communist Party that once pledged to stay out of the affairs of other countries is now building military capacity far beyond its immediate border. 

But the change is less important to China’s military capability than to its ability to directly intervene in global shipping. Earlier this year, the regime convinced Panama—home to the world’s other great shipping pass—to cut ties with Taiwan and fully back China’s claim on the island nation, which the regime describes as a breakaway province. 

These moves follow a series of port deals that have given the regime the ability to ensure its critical shipping lanes. 

Until now, however, none of those facilities have been for direct military use.

Establishing the Djibouti base reverses a long-standing military policy, said Gabe Collins, a researcher and co-founder of China Signpost.

“If you look at basic foreign policymaking throughout the vast majority of the PRC’s history, overseas bases are major redlines they weren’t willing to cross, and they pretty clearly crossed that now,” he said. Collins co-authored a report on the base and its implications two years ago.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea. (VOA News)

Territorial claims in the South China Sea. (VOA News)

The change comes as the Chinese regime becomes increasingly bellicose in its expansive claim to a major swath of the South China Sea. The regime has also been vocal and threatening in its ongoing and multiple border disputes with India. Those disputes have reached an intensity not seen in decades.

Military reform

Personnel from China are now en route to build out the facility, carried on ships that are part of the regime’s rapidly modernizing military.

That military is being reformed to develop the capability to fight battles beyond its shores.

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aims to, among other things, “improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland,” reads the secretary of defense’s 2017 report to Congress on Chinese military developments.

While the regime is most intent on potential conflict in the South and East China seas, Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fueled concern in strategic rival India that the PLA is gaining another position that could threaten Indian interests.

Limited military value

Fortunately for India, the actual military strategic value of the base is limited, said Collins. While it may be useful to launch attacks against much weaker foes in the Middle East or North Africa with limited attack capabilities, it is as much of a liability as it is an asset in a conflict with a greater power.

“I suspect that base would become a high explosive sponge fairly quickly. It’s a targeter’s dream because it’s built a way outside of the town,” he said.

Using Djibouti as a base of operations to fight another great power would be like throwing stones from a house made of “very, very, very thin glass,” said Collins. The base wouldn’t last long, he said.

The base is more useful for power projection into regional conflicts, a refueling and resupply depot rather than a base of operations. The fact that the United States, France, and Japan have bases there reinforces the point. To date, China has used its commercial facility there for years in ongoing anti-piracy efforts and to evacuate 500 Chinese nationals from Yemen in 2015.

Those operations gave China the pretext to forward-deploy naval forces in the region. With its Djibouti foothold now being expanded for military use, the regime gains a base in a country that is relatively stable in a region rife with conflict. For an expansionist China looking to build geopolitical influence in Africa and with oil-rich Gulf states, it’s an important gain.

“If you have an amphibious ship with some armed helicopters on it, and you are dealing with insurgents in some countries in East Africa, or even Yemen or place like that, you just came to the table with a lot of currency and you can play all night long,” said Collins.

Even if India can have some confidence that the base has limited military value, the ability China gains to forward deploy its navy along a critical shipping lane has unsettling implications.  

Pax Sinica

The Chinese regime has been working to secure its presence at the world’s most important chokepoints for shipping oil: the Strait of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Turkish Straits.

The Chinese reigme is working to gain influence at every major oil trade chokepoint. (Epoch Times)

The Chinese reigme is working to gain influence at every major oil trade chokepoint. (Epoch Times)

In doing so, the regime could play a major role securing or controlling world trade. That trade is now assured through the “Pax Americana,” a state of relative international peace overseen by the United States.

But a “Pax Sinica,” or “Chinese Peace,” could look very different, said Collins.

“One of the things you have to look at is the countries that are serving as security guarantor, you have to see what sort of mentality they bring to the table. Are they coming to this with a mercantilist mindset or much more with a globalist and trading oriented mindset,” asked Collin.

The United States has been an equal opportunity security provider, he said, basically indifferent to where oil was going, whether it be Europe or East Asia.

“We don’t discriminate at all in how we provide security based on the destination of the shipment and so I think that’s something that makes the Pax Americana unique,” he said.

While China’s intentions are unclear, its aggressive claims in the South China Sea and habit of using PLA hackers to steal commercial technology for China’s state-owned companies and high-priority industries are just two of many examples fueling allegations that the regime takes the mercantilist approach to trade.

At the moment, China can do little more than fly its flag in Djibouti, said Collins. It naval assets are limited to the few warships and support vessels that have made a passing presence there.

But that could change, and China could take a tactic it has used successfully in the South China Sea—using “coercive tactics, such as the use of law enforcement vessels and its maritime militia, to enforce maritime claims and advance its interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.”

From that perspective, even if the base has little value in an actual war, it could boost efforts to otherwise assert the interests of the Chinese regime.

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The Chinese regime has begun construction on a military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, that will be used to extend the reach of its military.
“Currently, construction of infrastructure for the support facilities has started, and the Chinese side has dispatched personnel to Djibouti for relevant work,” said Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, in a transcript of a Feb. 25 press briefing.
Qian said the base will logistical support will be among the base’s main uses. He claimed the Chinese regime would use it for missions to escort ships through the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast, and for “peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.”
According to other Chinese officials, however, the base could be the start of a more nefarious agenda.
A major general in the Chinese military recently called for China to contain the United States by attacking its finances, saying “that’s the way to control America’s lifeblood.”
The call was made by Maj. Gen. , a professor at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National Defense University, in an op-ed published in the official mouthpiece of the PLA, China Military Online.
Liang said a key part of this strategy, the CCP should place strategic importance on major shipping channels, including the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, Gwadar Port, and the China–Pakistan Railway.
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The PLA’s military base in Djibouti is at the mouth of the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, which sees close to 3.2 million barrels of oil pass through it each day.
Liang is one of two PLA officers who wrote the 1999 book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” which has become a roadmap for China’s use of unconventional warfare—from currency manipulation to cyberattacks.
In his recent op-ed, and noting a long-term strategy to control key points with geopolitical value, he states “To effectively contain the United States, other countries shall think more about how to cut off the capital flow to the United States while formulating their strategies.”

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This news analysis was originally dispatched as part of Epoch Times China email newsletters. Subscribe to the newsletters by filling your email in the “China D-brief” box under this article.
It was a long time coming, but the Chinese regime recently confirmed what military analysts have been predicting for years. China signed a deal with Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, to build an overseas military base.
The foreign ministry spokesperson of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hong Lei, said on Jan. 21 the base will give logistical support to the Chinese military, as it helps with anti-piracy operations.
The significance of the move, however, is likely less about military and more about business. China is working on deals to gain port access at every major maritime trade chokepoint, and the base in Djibouti will be a major step towards its objectives.
An unnamed journalist mentioned in the foreign ministry transcript that alongside the base deal, the CCP signed a deal with Djibouti that sets up a “free trade zone, expand[s] Djibouti’s role for transshipment of goods in trade between China and the world, and let[s] Chinese banks operate in Djibouti.”
The Chinese regime made a subtle move last year, which hinted at the deal. On April 2, 2015, China sent its Type 054A Linyi frigate to help evacuate 449 Chinese citizens from Yemen, who were then brought to Djibouti.
And while the world was watching the Chinese ship help in the evacuations, it sent a squadron of three warships, 800 sailors, and a special forces team to hold “anti-piracy patrols” in the nearby Gulf of Aden.
It then decided to leave the naval squadron in the region, and Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, said at the time the Chinese warships would “keep pirates away from one of the most important water courses in the world.”
It was also then that China began asking Djibouti for either special port access or basing rights.
On the surface there’s nothing special about a country wanting a military base in Djibouti—particularly since China is taking part in anti-piracy patrols in nearby waters.
The United States, France, and Japan also have military bases there, and it’s used as a staging area for anti-terror and anti-piracy operations.
As I’ve reported before, the real reason behind China’s interest in Djibouti likely ties to its push to have a military presence at all major maritime trade chokepoints.
The broader picture is that whoever controls the world’s shipping chokepoints controls the flow of oil and close to 90 percent of global trade.
Protecting this system is one of the key objectives of the United States under the “Pax Americana,” and the Chinese regime is trying to build a similar system, but in a way that more closely serves its interests while denying the interests of others.
The idea is that whoever secures the global trade channels also has influence over global trade. What has some defense experts concerned about the CCP replicating this system is that while the United States offers its service without cost and allows open access to all, the CCP system may be more selective with who can pass.
The concern is well grounded, since the CCP is already denying both air and maritime access to other nations in areas it has claimed in the South China Sea—and is stirring up trouble with most of the region’s neighboring countries.
The CCP’s presence in the South China Sea gives it influence over trade coming through the Strait of Malacca, which sees close to 13.6 million barrels of oil pass through it each day.
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Robert Haddick, author of “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” explained this push in a previous interview with Epoch Times, and noted, “I think people don’t appreciate this problem or threat because it’s so unfamiliar.”
The world’s most important chokepoints for shipping oil are the Strait of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Turkish Straits—and the Chinese regime is working on deals to gain port access around all of these.
Djibouti is positioned at the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, which sees close to 3.2 million barrels of oil pass through it each day.

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