China’s Naval Base in Djibouti

Few countries, if any, host as diverse a concentration of foreign military bases as Djibouti. In recent years, joining long-time guests France and the U.S., the militaries of Japan, Italy and China have all built permanent bases in the small East African country. Other countries such as Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are reportedly planning to follow suit. The fact that Djibouti is roughly the same size as Sicily and all the aforementioned bases are found in an area of just over 240 square kilometres highlights just how congested this space is.

Foreign Military Bases in Djibouti (This map is based on open-source research and may not reflect the exact footprint of the bases depicted). Credit: MEDITERRANEAN DEFENCE

A quick glance at a map of the region is enough to grasp the appeal of Djibouti as an important base of operations for countries with a large stake in secure maritime trade, as well as those aiming to maintain or improve the range of their militaries. While it isn’t exactly located at the narrowest point of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, it is close enough to allow militaries with a foothold in the country to project their power in and around this vital choke point for global seaborne trade.

The U.S. and France have maintained bases in Djibouti for decades, but the new players on the block (Italy, China and Japan) joined them in the last decade largely as a follow-up to their involvement in anti-piracy operations. Eritrea being off-limits, and Somalia and Yemen being far too unstable, Djibouti is an obvious choice thanks also to its relative stability and proximity to those hotspots.

Djibouti on the other hand seems only too happy to host foreign military forces on its soil as it benefits economically from their presence there. According to French figures, the economic activity surrounding Paris’ bases in the country amounts to around 4% of the country’s whole GDP, while China’s investments and contracts in the country between 2013 and 2020 were worth more than 860 million Euros.

A True Naval Base for China

Djibouti rarely made the news, even in light of the proliferation of foreign military bases, until in 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping approved the decision to build a permanent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval base in the country. Initially classified merely as a “logistical support facility”, the base actually hosts marines and special forces and is equipped with a short runway for helicopters which may just may be long enough to launch small UAVs.

Undoubtedly, the base also represents a useful asset for China in a scenario where the PLA is called on to evacuate some of the estimated 100,000 Chinese nationals living in the Horn of Africa (of which 60,000 in Ethiopia) in times of crisis.

Crucially, China’s Djibouti base, its first overseas naval base, grants China the capacity to undertake and sustain missions geared toward protecting strategic sea lanes as well as anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations.

While the Chinese base is relatively small, especially in comparison to its French and U.S. counterparts, what really sets it apart from all other foreign bases in Djibouti is the construction of a new, 300+ metres-long pier.

China’s base with its pier under construction in November 2020

All foreign militaries in the country currently have to dock their warships at the Port of Djibouti. China, however, will soon be the only country operating a true naval base for its own exclusive use.

Satellite imagery shows how Djibouti’s port is routinely shared by many foreign powers, including China (at least until the pier is operational). In the image slider below, the left-hand photo shows an Italian Navy FREMM-class frigate and two Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN) ships docked there at the same time in July 2018. The right-hand image shows two French navy ships – a La Fayette-class frigate and a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship – in the same spot in May 2020.

A New Player in the Mediterranean?

The Mediterranean is the end point of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and as such it has seen a surge in Chinese investments, including in maritime infrastructure. It is therefore an undisputable fact that China is already a major player in Mediterranean affairs, although it has seldom deployed PLA Navy vessels there.

With 24% of EU imports coming from China, and much of which by sea, Beijing has a marked interest in ensuring that more and more goods can be quickly and safely exported to Europe. In the context of the fight against piracy, China’s step into the broader Mediterranean through the construction of a base in Djibouti was a cautious attempt to extend the reach of its navy without sounding too many alarm bells.

[The Djibouti base] will better serve Chinese troops when they carry out international peacekeeping operations, escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast and perform humanitarian rescue. It is of great significance for the Chinese troops in their performance of international obligations to safeguard international and regional peace and stability.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei, November 2015

Chinese authorities are keen to highlight that their base in Djibouti is geared toward logistics and not combat operations, yet the line is a lot blurrier than they’d like to admit.

The southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean are exceedingly unstable and have presented Russia and Turkey with opportunities to enhance their militaries’ reach in the region thanks to the Syrian and Libyan conflicts. With its Djibouti base, China has now at least increased the likelihood that it may exploit more instability in order to gain a further foothold in the Mediterranean basin in the future.

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