China has long practiced a foreign policy of geographic isolation and maintained a military for the sole purpose of homeland defense. In recent decades, the nation has undergone an immense shift in its economic aspirations, rising to become the world’s second-largest economy and a linchpin in the global economic system. Consequently, China has realized that in order to safeguard its economic position and better situate itself for continued growth and global influence, it must become stronger and more capable within the international security arena. President Xi Jinping has undertaken a massive expansion of Chinese military capabilities—partly catalyzed by the uncontested passage of a US carrier strike group through the Taiwan Strait in 1996. China has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in military modernization over the last decade. That includes a 30 percent total increase since 2011, with a double-digit percentage increase in the annual defense budget that is projected to exceed $200 billion in total defense spending by 2020. This number is much larger if China’s immense black budget defense spending and far lower cost of labor and acquisition are also taken into account.
While the extensive expansion of Chinese military capabilities and aggressive territorial actions in the South and East China Seas have rightfully caught the attention of many people in the American military and foreign policy establishment, a new development in the US-China dynamic has gone largely unnoticed. Although territorial expansion and immense military improvements are indicative of China’s larger plans, the most important single action to consider in analyzing China’s future goals is the construction of the nation’s first overseas military outpost. This new base in Djibouti is a signal that China is no longer going to continue the historical trend of only influencing foreign policy in East Asia. Instead, China is likely to exert its power and influence thousands of miles from its own shores.
The Strategic Value of Djibouti:
As the United States’ only permanent military facility in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is a critical American strategic asset. Located at the nation’s Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, Camp Lemonnier is the staging base for a significant portion of US military action in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, including Yemen and Somalia. In July 2012, over 1,500 flights originated from the base in Djibouti. Based on satellite images, the United States likely deploys a variety of aircraft—including P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, KC-135 Stratotankers, V-22 Ospreys, and either CH-46 or CH-47 twin rotor helicopters, among others—out of Camp Lemonnier. It has also been reported that F-15E Strike Eagles, an aircraft designed for ground-attack missions with advanced weaponry, have been deployed to the base. In addition to anti-piracy operations and general aviation missions, the United States runs numerous critical military operations from Lemonnier. The base is the primary location from which the US military directs drones and special operations forces in Africa and Yemen, including JSOC-controlled units such as Seal Team Six (DEVGRU) and Delta Force (1st SFOD-D), in missions that are critical to the war on terror. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is the command authority for tier one special forces units and often carries out counter-terrorism operations in conjunction with the intelligence community. In fact, it is highly possible that the first mission ordered by President Donald Trump, the Navy Seal raid in Yemen, was launched from either Camp Lemonnier or an amphibious assault ship off the coast of Yemen. Consequently, the United States is heavily invested in Djibouti, as two of nation’s most highly classified programs—the drone program and JSOC operations—operate out of the base.
Recognizing the immense value of Camp Lemonnier to the United States, China selected Djibouti as the location for its first overseas military facility. Whereas Camp Lemonnier is primarily serviced from the air, China’s new facility is situated on the coast with the stated intention of serving as a resupply base for the nation’s burgeoning blue-water navy fleet. In addition to expanding its global reach, China has strategic reasons for building a navy base in Djibouti. Just as geographic proximity allows China to ensure security in the strategically and economically vital South and East China seas, China now hopes to take advantage of the same proximity to important shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (both of which border Djibouti). China has also invested significant capital in economic infrastructure within the small nation and carried out humanitarian missions and evacuation operations of its own citizens within Africa and the Middle East.
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However, it is likely that China was not solely motivated by economic interests when deciding on the base’s location. First, China may have placed its first overseas base in the Middle East because it seeks to play a more influential role in global affairs. The Middle East is a powderkeg where all of the world's powers collide, which provides China the ability to insert itself in consequential foreign policy deliberations. Although China does not play the same role in counterterrorism operations as the United States does, it has indicated a desire to significantly increase its involvement. For example, China has continuously vetoed UN sanctions against Syria, indicating a desire to play a role in the conflict. Additionally, it should not escape notice that this overseas military base was constructed at a time when China plans to enlarge its marine corps by 400 percent, as well as expand its naval fleet. Moreover, the Chinese government does not intend for the base to sit empty, as the only reason to have a marine corps is to use it overseas. China will likely put the base to use as it continues anti-piracy operations and increases counter-terrorism and power projection in the region.
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Additionally, China is likely motivated in part by more malicious and confrontational aims than a simple desire to secure its economic rights and suppress piracy. Chinese leaders know that their new base is situated less than three miles from Camp Lemonnier, a highly active US military facility home to some of the nation’s most highly classified operations and programs. What better way for China to learn and incorporate tested logistics strategies, special operations tactics, and maritime security procedures than to witness the world leader in each of those fields practice them in real time? If China’s sole aim was to support its growing navy and global ambitions, then there were plenty of other possible locations for the base. We should not doubt for a second that Djibouti was selected because it provides an invaluable location from which China can further gather intelligence (radar, SIGINT, MASINT) on highly secretive US military activities.
Future Scenarios and Responses
While the Chinese base in Djibouti likely poses no physical threat to American troops in the region, the United States must look to the future to determine whether China’s overseas military expansion is a one-time occurrence—or the new rule. If, in fact, Djibouti turns out to be the only overseas military base that China constructs, the US must do two basic things. First, the Department of Defense must increase the security procedures at Camp Lemonnier to adjust for an increased counterintelligence risk and possibly change the communication and transportation methods used at the base. This could include limiting communication to strictly encrypted radio methods or satellite communications, and only deploying unclassified drone and helicopter technologies to the base. Classified helicopter designs, such as the stealth UH-60 Blackhawk used in Syria and Operation Neptune Spear, should not be deployed from Camp Lemonnier to avoid Chinese observation through both visual and electromagnetic means.
On the other hand, China has indicated a significant desire to have a global military reach. In 2015, China boldly deployed five naval vessels immediately off the coast of Alaska during former President Obama’s visit to the state, and in 2016, China positioned several navy ships at a port in Pakistan. Thus, while Djibouti is the first overseas Chinese military base, it certainly will not be the last. As a result, the United States will likely face increased military competition from China across the globe, and must respond accordingly. To determine a proper response, the United States must understand the strategic rationale for the new Chinese base.
First, the American government needs to consider why the Chinese government chose the specific locations they did, as the location of Chinese military bases is greatly indicative of their purpose and priorities. For example, the site in Djibouti was primarily chosen due to its proximity to major trading routes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, as well as existing Chinese economic investments in the region. To restate, the base’s proximity to a highly secretive US military installation was an added benefit, not the driving force. If China continues to position bases near major trading routes, the concern the United States has for these bases should be reduced. There is likely little malicious intent behind China’s construction of new bases, although they should still be monitored due to China’s tendency to infringe on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. There may even be room for increased cooperation between the two countries in counter-piracy operations beyond what is already ongoing.
However, if newly developed bases are constructed in nations closer to North America, such as on mid-Pacific islands or near the Atlantic Ocean, the United States should be significantly more anxious. There are no threats to Chinese economic interests in these regions, and there are nations in both areas that would not hesitate to help civilian vessels in distress. Consequently, these facilities would likely be for the sole purpose of projecting power toward the United States and would require a much more aggressive American response relying on strong diplomatic tools. As overseas military bases require the host nation’s permission, and sometimes even financial payments to the host country, the United States can apply pressure on host nations to prevent the placement of Chinese bases by manipulating foreign aid or imposing sanctions to create a detrimental financial situation for would-be hosts. The US has a significant array of economic and political capabilities at its disposal to prevent a military escalation in this scenario. In the unlikely event that these peaceful mechanisms do not resolve the situation, tensions would surely escalate as the United States would be required to maintain a constant naval presence in the area that allows for a quick response to any possible aggressive actions.
Possibly more indicative of Chinese motivations than the location of new overseas military bases are the weapons systems and technologies placed within them. With regards to naval assets, China possesses a large fleet of frigates, of which the newest version is the Type 054A, a class of ship that has historically been used for the protection of trade routes and the safe escort of vessels through dangerous regions. The deployment of frigates, coastal patrol vessels, and support ships would be confirmation that China simply seeks to protect vital trade routes. Even the deployment of an amphibious assault ship should not set off alarm bells, as these vessels are frequently used to evacuate citizens from dangerous regions, as China did in Libya and Yemen. However, if nuclear-powered submarines, multiple destroyers, or one of China’s aircraft carriers are deployed to an overseas military facility, there is reason to doubt the stated intentions of protecting trade routes from pirates, and more reason to suspect power projection.
A similar distinction can be made if China deploys aircraft overseas. Maritime surveillance, cargo, and tanker aircraft, in addition to a variety of helicopters, should not cause concern, as they are commonly used in maritime security operations. Deployments of fighter aircraft and strategic bombers, however, would require US military assets in the region to be placed on a much higher state of alert. Likewise, if China were to deploy HQ-9, S-300, or S-400 SAM systems, land-based anti-ship missiles, or any of the nation’s newly developed ballistic missiles (irrespective of range), the US military forces in the area should assume a strong defensive posture, and high-ranking US diplomatic officials should strongly pressure China to remove the systems. There should be no tolerance for a Chinese deployment of any missile systems overseas. Fortunately, it is highly unlikely that any of these deployments, whether naval, air, or weaponry, could be moved without advanced detection by the United States satellite network or more conventional intelligence methods. Thus, with advanced warning, the United States could hopefully forestall such a deployment through diplomacy.
US and Chinese forces in Djibouti are very unlikely to ever come into conflict as a result of the proximity of the two bases. That is simply not the purpose of either facility. What is important to remember when viewing China's actions in Djibouti, however, is that the age of Chinese influence being limited to Asia is over. China has entered the global stage, not just as an economic power as it has been for years, but now as a major military and foreign policy force. Whether it be the South China Sea or Syria, North Korea or Iran, or any of the world’s oceans, President Xi Jinping is ready to make China’s weight felt across the globe. The United States must be politically, economically, and militarily prepared to deal with this new dimension in world affairs.
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