China to open Indian Ocean 'base'

China to open Indian Ocean

Submitted by Subeditor on Mon, 2016-01-25 18:20 Beijing: To whoever is listening, China regularly says it does not seek hegemony. However, the announcement that China has concluded a long-term deal to run a military base - or logistics facility or however else you want to label it - in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa will cause many to question Beijing's long-held position against hegemony. President Ismail Omar Guelleh announced this on 20 January 2015, alongside a slew of agreements covering a 48km² free trade zone, the appointment of Djibouti as a cargo transshipment hub, and the operation of Chinese banks there. It will be interesting to see how China describes this "facility" in coming days and weeks, with "base" sure to be a word that Beijing studiously avoids. Nevertheless, the USA is calling it a base. "They are going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa," General David Rodriguez, commander of the US military's Africa Command (AFRICOM), commented. Indeed, this is China's first ever military base anywhere overseas, no matter how modest it might turn out to be. Rodriguez confirmed that China had signed a ten-year contract with Djibouti for this military logistics hub. Interestingly, Djibouti is calling it a base too. Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf said last month, "The negotiations have come to an end and the naval base will be built in Djibouti. The goal of the base is to fight against pirates...and most of all to secure the Chinese ships using this very important strait that is important to all the countries in the world." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei commented during a routine press conference on 21 January, "Friendly relations between China and Djibouti have been forging ahead over recent years, as evidenced by constantly increased political mutual trust, flourishing cooperation in economy and trade and vibrant cultural exchanges." He continued, "During his attendance at the FOCAC [Forum on China-Africa Cooperation] Summit in Johannesburg, President Xi Jinping met with President Guelleh, reaffirming their commitment to enhancing the bilateral relationship, safeguarding regional peace and stability and promoting common development. When directly asked about the logistics facility, Hong said, "Vessels have been sent by China to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast for escort missions in recent years. In fulfilling escort missions, we encountered real difficulties in replenishing soldiers and resupplying fuel and food, and found it really necessary to have nearby and efficient logistical support. China and Djibouti consulted with each other and reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable the Chinese troops to better fulfil escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability." He pointed out, "The nature of relevant facilities is clear, which is to provide logistical support to Chinese fleets performing escort duties in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast." Djibouti, a nation of just 876,000 people, also hosts French, Japanese and US military facilities, so the addition of China should not come as a surprise. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has deployed to the Gulf of Aden in support of international anti-piracy operations since July 2009, and Japan signed an agreement in 2010 to build a base near Ambouli International Airport. It houses 200 personnel and two P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Facilities include a barracks and maintenance hangar for JMSDF personnel supporting the P-3Cs. While it has not been officially confirmed yet, the site for China's base is likely to be Obock. Djibouti is adjacent to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a strategic chokepoint in the Red Sea between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Chinese warships have regularly made port calls in Djibouti since the first anti-piracy mission commenced in December 2008, averaging four to five annually and perhaps more than 50 times to date. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa center at the Atlantic Council, noted that a base would be cheaper than the current temporary arrangements that allow Chinese warships to dock in Djibouti. The deal will surely also give China airfield access. This will clearly have massive implications for, if Chinese aircraft such as Shaanxi Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft are permanently stationed there, the people's Liberation Army (PLA) will significantly improve its transportation and intelligence-gathering capacity in the Middle East and Africa. Xi's recent visits to Iran and Saudi Arabia demonstrate just how important the region is to resource-hungry China. Aside from Indian protests about China encroaching into its sphere of interest, China has a great many vested interests in Africa. It thus makes logical sense for China to set up a facility in Djibouti. However, India has little right to protest China's move. If Japan's military detachment in Djibouti did not ruffle Indian feathers, then China's presence - which is unlikely to have a much heavier footprint - should not be a cause of gnashing of teeth. The only reason it would do so is because Delhi sees China as a far greater strategic threat than Japan, and does not want it operating on its periphery China has been heavily involved in commercial projects in the African nation, including a salt pier built by the China Communications Construction Company, a 23.5�take in Port de Djibouti by China Merchants Holdings, construction of the Damerjog livestock port and multipurpose Doraleh port (launched in 2013),and phase 1 construction of the Doraleh wharf with 1,200m frontage for five deep-water berths. Chinese observers Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins commented, "Durable access to facilities in Djibouti that can be easily improved by Chinese construction firms would give China a formidable - and more permanent - maritime and potentially aerial springboard deep into the northwest Indian Ocean Region, as well as North, East and Central Africa." Chinese Minister of Defense General Chang Wanquan visited Djibouti in February 2014 and the two counties signed a defense and security pact. Interestingly, Djibouti's military has begun operating Chinese-manufactured MA-60 aircraft and PTL02 6x6 wheeled tank destroyers, demonstrating closer ties between the two countries. Guelleh's comments to a Saudi newspaper last June signaled that negotiations with China for a naval facility were well under way even at that time. In an interview with Saudi newspaper Al-Havah on 1 June, Guelleh stated, "We will now sign an agreement with China. We are bound by strong ties with them." At that time when asked if other countries such as India wanted to open a base, the president said, "We have no intention of approving the opening of other bases. That is enough." In its May 2015 Defense White Paper, Chinese officialdom stated the PLA would "adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations". Lawmakers in Beijing passed the National Security Law on 1 July 2015. This laid the foundation for the military to claim long-range overseas missions are on of its legally recognized mandates. Significantly, Article 18 stated the PLA is responsible for protecting "overseas interests", which may include the option of military action. It is already heavily involved in United Nations peacekeeping missions, with China having more troops posted abroad than any other permanent member of the Security Council. Furthermore, the law's Article 21 includes a clause saying the state must protect "the transportation of natural resources and energy". This includes routes on sea and land to safeguard the country's social and economic development. Among China's greatest concerns is security of oil supplies. Notably, the threat from Somali pirates has dwindled severely over the past couple of years. Why, therefore, should China need to continue to operate a counterpiracy task force for the next ten years? This fact more than any other shows China's desire to increase its global footprint. Indeed, China will maintain a permanent naval presence in Djibouti no matter whether there is a piracy threat in the Gulf of Aden or not. The PLAN has previously used warships stationed there for non-combatant evacuations from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, showing just how useful it is to have assets out and about around the globe. Djibouti would offer China unparalleled access to the Gulf of Aden and maritime chokepoints. Collins and Erickson wrote further, "Alas for China, the time in which it can use the Somali pirate threat as a cloak for forward deploying naval forces is likely coming to a close. As such, Beijing must decide whether it will pull back or instead more openly seek to maintain a permanent military presence in the region. So far, in keeping with China's overall maritime goals and progress, all the signs point to the latter." Elsewhere in the India Ocean, Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has confirmed a USD1.4 billion port city funded by China will go ahead in Colombo. It had been suspended last year to allow a review of the original agreement, the next phase of the Hanbantota harbor development. He commented, "We are looking at the Chinese participation in the logistics hub of Sri Lanka as well as further investments in the real-estate sector." This all fits into Xi's overarching One Belt, One Road grand vision. Its maritime silk road will stretch from China across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden, through the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean. If there is increased trade along this route for China, it will underscore the need for the PLA to protect its trade routes, and its first base in Djibouti makes even more sense. While One Belt, One Road is not a military initiative, it is very easy to see how the military dimension will follow the economic one. The same week, the World Food Program announced it would be opening a logistics base in Djibouti too. "We are opening this facility at a critical time, when Djibouti is playing a key role in our responses to several major crises in the region, including the conflicts in South Sudan and Yemen and the drought in Ethiopia worsened by El Nino," said Valerie Guarnieri, WFP's regional director for East and Central Africa. China is clearly just one party to see the benefit of setting up home in the strategically important Horn of Africa.