What’s Going on at China’s Military Base in Djibouti?

China appears to be building formidable defences on its first and only military base, located in Djibouti, on the coast of the Horn of Africa.

The private intelligence firm Stratfor has analysed satellite images of the base. It has found the base have three layers of defences on its perimetre and an extensive underground facility inside.

‘The inner layer consists of a large perimeter wall with several two-story towers at the corners for observation or for troop access to the wall’, according to the analysis. ‘Outside these large walls, a smaller wall or thick fencing with several observation towers spread along the perimeter can be seen. The spacing between the walls and beyond the outer wall provide the third layer of security.’

The northern end of the base features a ‘below ground level’ entrance that leads to other facilities below the surface. Stratfor estimates these span 23,000 square metres. It is not clear what purpose these underground facilities will serve.

The base also has ‘several smaller tunnels and bunkers’ that are ‘in line with known Chinese practices in hardening military bases.’

A relatively short 400-metre tarmac and eight hangars suggest the base will also house helicopters.

Though the base is intended as a naval facility, construction of docks or piers have not begun. At present, the military base still relies on the commercial port in Djibouti, including a Chinese built extension for access to the sea.

A proliferation of bases

China is not the only country with a military facility in Djibouti. The tiny country is also home to Camp Lemonnier, a US base that serves as the home of America’s Africa Command and houses 4,000 military and civilian personnel.

France and Japan also have smaller bases close by around the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Last year, Reuters reported that Japan was looking to lease more land in Djibouti to its expand its base so it can counter Chinese influence. Saudi Arabia, which has close ties to Djibouti, is also setting up a base of its own.

The proliferation of military bases is a windfall for Djibouti, a poor and arid country little bigger than Mizoram. With a population of less than a million and few natural resources, Djibouti has leveraged its prized strategic location. The country lies at the mouth of the Red Sea, south from the Suez Canal, through which about 10% of the world’s oil exports and 20% of its merchandise exports sail every year.

Djibouti neighbours Somalia, from where pirates have, in the recent past, menaced this vital trade route. Situated on the Horn of Africa, the country is also notable for its geographical proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. At its closest point, across the Mandeb Strait, Djibouti is less than 40 kilometres across the sea from Yemen.

Djibouti’s location is ideal for a Saudi Arabia looking to mount military operations against Iranian proxies in Yemen. The UAE, a Saudi ally, already has a small base in neighbouring Eritrea and is opening a second one to the south in Somaliland.

The US Camp Lemonnier is largely focused landwards on counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations in Africa and sometimes nearby Yemen. France’s residual presence in the country is a legacy of its colonial rule. (Djibouti celebrated its 40th year of independence last month.)

It is less clear what China is doing in Djibouti. It says its base, which can house 10,000 personnel, will act as a naval resupply and restocking facility, primarily for ships engaged in anti-piracy and humanitarian aid operations in the region. The base will also allow Chinese naval ships to patrol the Red Sea on a regular basis and protect the country’s merchant vessels sailing through the Suez and from the African continent, with which China enjoys a $200 billion-a-year trading relationship. Finally, the base will function as a place for China’s many UN peacekeeping troops serving in Africa to rest and recuperate.

While these goals all appear reasonable, China’s rivals will keep a close watch on what it eventually does with a military base in strategic prime real estate, complete with 23 square kilometres of underground facilities.

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