China’s military conducted significant live-fire military exercises in Djibouti at the end of November, marking an important turning point in the People’s Liberation Army’s overseas activities by conducting ground-based exercises in a foreign territory independent of a United Nations command (PLA Daily, November 28; SCMP, December 18). The live-ammunition exercises, employing armored personnel carriers, took place around the time of Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s visit to Beijing—a visit that deepened China-Djibouti ties and inked economic and technical cooperation agreements between the two countries (PLA Daily, November 23).
China’s deepening diplomatic and military inroads into Africa will be made even more sustainable by the July opening of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. The base marks an important development in the Chinese military’s ability to provide logistical support to counterterrorism, anti-piracy, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (China Brief, July 21). While China has often played down the military significance of the base, emphasizing its support and logistics roles instead, the recent live-fire drills, along with reports that the base will host up to 10,000 troops, could indicate an enhanced military role for the Djibouti base (SCMP, July 13).
The Chinese facility is near the U.S.’ sole military base in Africa—Camp Lemonnier—and signals China’s interest in protecting its growing economic and security interests in Africa and the Indian Ocean. While the base reflects China’s growing economic and security ambitions, it is unclear at present whether the facility represents just an effort for China to enhance its peacekeeping and humanitarian and disaster relief capabilities, or suggests greater ambitions. If, as some reports suggest, China does open more military bases in African and the Indian Ocean region, then the Djibouti base would mark the beginning of a sea-change in Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean region (Sina, December 19).
Features of the Base
In July 2017, a Chinese naval contingent embarked for Djibouti to inaugurate China’s first overseas military base (Xinhua, July 11). Located on the tip of the Horn of Africa, the Djibouti base sits at a strategic point between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. China’s 36 hectare (approximately 90 acre) facility will likely host several thousand troops, and have repair facilities for ships and helicopters (QQ, March 7). There is some evidence suggesting a large, underground storage facility around 23,000 square meters (Stratfor, July 26). China’s base is situated near the Doraleh Multi-purpose Port area of Djibouti, and lies approximately 7 miles northwest of the U.S. base, Camp Lemonnier. France and Japan have also leased facilities in Djibouti, and those bases are located in the general vicinity of the U.S. and Chinese bases.
Likely Purpose and Motivations of the Base
China’s military base in Djibouti represents both a culmination of years of expanding economic and maritime security interests, and a prelude to deeper levels of strategic engagement in Africa and the Indian Ocean region as part of Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road. To better understand the purpose and uses of the Djibouti base, it is helpful to examine three features of China’s broader foreign policy: migration of Chinese citizens to Africa and Beijing’s growing diplomatic engagement on the continent; a growing emphasis on maritime military power and safeguarding citizens abroad, and; the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s base in Djibouti helps to support Chinese diplomatic efforts in Africa and provides an outpost to assist growing numbers of Chinese citizens in Africa. Over the years, China’s economic growth imperative has evolved alongside its global diplomatic ambitions and security needs. These motivations have given rise to a steady increase in the number of Chinese citizens engaged in commerce and living abroad in Africa and South Asia, and the involvement of Chinese state-owned enterprises in these regions. Private enterprises have followed the state companies and a report in June by McKinsey, a consultancy, estimated that over 10,000 Chinese businesses were operating across the African continent. Of these, some 90 percent are believed to be private companies (McKinsey, June 2017). Increased Chinese economic engagement in Africa has been accompanied by enhanced diplomatic efforts—consisting of foreign aid—and over 2,000 Chinese soldiers serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Africa (ECFR, June 2016). China intends the base to serve as a support and logistics facility for peacekeepers, and also as a naval facility to support anti-piracy operations.
The Djibouti base reflects a growing emphasis on maritime military interests. In order to safeguard increasing Chinese equities in Africa and South Asia, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began to emphasize maritime power and prioritize the protection of Chinese citizens overseas in recent years. At the end of previous Chinese president Hu Jintao’s term, Beijing “declared the protection of Chinese overseas interests to be a foreign policy priority” (ECFR, June 2016). Since current president Xi Jinping assumed power at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, China has focused on strengthening its role as a maritime power (Xinhua, July 31, 2013). In its most clear articulation of a shift to prioritizing maritime power, China’s 2015 Defense White Paper noted that China must protect its maritime rights and interests (China Brief, June 19, 2015). Over the years, the PLA Navy has augmented its maritime capabilities, both in terms of rapid shipbuilding, and also operational learning and participation in joint exercises.
The Djibouti base is an important station along the Belt and Road Initiative’s “belt,” which is also referred to as the Maritime Silk Road. China’s BRI is a grandiose undertaking that aims to foster greater regional cooperation and economic development across the Eurasian landmass and connect China and Southeast Asia with the northern Indian Ocean littoral, Africa, and the Mediterranean. In Africa, China has invested in a railway linking Ethiopia with Djibouti, and has plans to construct a natural gas pipeline between the two countries as well (China Brief, November 10; SCMP, November 21). The Chinese government has trumpeted BRI as a peaceful endeavor that will spread economic prosperity, but analysts outside of China view it as a way for Beijing to create new spheres of influence at best, and as a gradual way to increase its military influence at worst. 
Probable Uses of the Base Within the Next Five Years
Against the backdrop of China’s increasing equities in Africa, a rising emphasis on maritime power, and BRI, the Djibouti base will likely fulfill several needs. It will provide re-supply and other support to facilitate the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, and the PLA’s peacekeeping operations in Africa (Xinhua, July 11; Ministry of Defense of China, July 11). The facility should also provide a hub for the PLAN’s naval diplomacy in the region, could assist in future counterterrorism operations, and help with intelligence gathering (ECFR, June 2016). Additionally, it will help expedite evacuations of Chinese nationals in the region. On balance, its primary purpose in the near term will be to support China’s economic interests along the Maritime Silk Road, and assist in military operations other than war (MOOTW). 
Unlikely Purposes of the Base Within the Next Five Years
China intends to build additional naval bases and facilities in Africa and the Middle East in the years to come. Although the Djibouti base represents the first step in China’s ambitions to create a network of support facilities, it is unlikely that the Djibouti base will be used to supplant U.S. or Indian naval power in the Indian Ocean region. China’s ability to use the Djibouti base as a springboard to exert naval power across the Indian Ocean will not be at a level equivalent to what the U.S. Navy achieved across the world post 1954.  Given that its Djibouti base is located near that of the U.S., Chinese attempts to use the base as an attempt to undermine the U.S. naval presence in the west Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden would unlikely succeed. More probable is that China uses the base to primarily support its economic engagements in the region, increase its abilities to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and conduct anti-piracy and counter terrorism operations.
Implications for U.S. Policy Interests
China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti presents U.S. policymakers with both opportunities and risks. The naval base’s primary purposes—that of serving as a platform for Chinese peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, and humanitarian and disaster relief operations—could increase opportunities for the U.S. military to collaborate and engage in confidence building exercises with the PLA. At the same time, there is the possibility of increased miscommunication at sea. With a long-term presence in Africa, China’s intelligence gathering capabilities will most certainly grow. This presents a risk for U.S. military and intelligence operations in the region, and requires greater vigilance on the part of the U.S. intelligence and national security community.
- Brewster, David, “Silk Roads and String of Pearls: The Strategic Geography of China’s New Pathways in the Indian Ocean,” Geopolitics, Aug 2016.
- This section also draws from Ji, You, “China’s Emerging Indo-Pacific Naval Strategy,” Asia Policy, 22 (July, 2016).
- These insights draw from Brewster, p. 11.