(CNSNews.com) – The establishment of China’s first military base beyond its shores is making headlines, but Beijing seems bemused by the attention, insisting the outpost in Djibouti – just miles from a key U.S. Special Forces base – is for logistics and supply, not a step towards extending Chinese “hegemony” abroad.
Two Chinese warships departed from Zhanjiang in south China’s Guangdong province on Tuesday, heading for the new support base in the small, the strategically-located Horn of Africa country.
Official Chinese media outlets repeatedly stated that the reason for base is merely to provide refueling and refreshment for Chinese ships, which have been carrying out anti-piracy escorting missions in and around the Gulf of Aden since 2008.
Up until now, they explain, Chinese ships have experienced logistical difficulties in the region, so the move – agreed upon in “friendly negotiations” with Djibouti – is not an unreasonable one.
“The Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion, and China has no intention of turning the logistics center into a military foothold,” the Xinhua state news agency said Thursday, adding that the last thing China needs is “ill will and groundless speculation.”
“The ultimate purpose of China’s efforts in enhancing its military strength is to ensure its own security, instead of pursuing hegemony or seeking to police the world,” it said – in an apparent dig at the United States which Beijing does accuse of “pursing hegemony” and trying to “police the world.”
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times did not play down the base’s significance, describing it as the People’s Liberation Army’s “first overseas base where troops will be stationed instead of offering commercial logistics support.”
However, it added, the Chinese base was different to American ones which “serve to support U.S. hegemony around the world.”
Global Times pointed out that the U.S. has 4,000 military personnel stationed in Djibouti, and deploys patrol aircraft and fighter jets there. It called the U.S. base, Camp Lemonnier, “a military outpost for the U.S. to exert influence on Africa.”
People’s Daily, another Communist Party paper, said in a commentary that the reason for Western countries’ “undue focus on China’s small military camp” is their view that Beijing will “also try to control the world with its expanding military power just like they [Western powers] did before.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing Wednesday the base will “help with Djibouti’s socio-economic development and allow China to make greater contributions to the peace and stability of Africa and beyond.”
Asked about the view that it marks a step in China’s “military expansion abroad,” Geng stated that the country was “committed to the path of peaceful development and follows a defensive national defense policy. This remains unchanged.”
‘PLA strategists envision an increasingly global role’
Whatever the case, the base does represent another military first for China, eight years after it sent two guided missile destroyers and a supply vessel to patrol the waters off northeast Africa, its first ever naval deployment beyond the Pacific Ocean.
In a recent annual report to Congress on China’s military power, the Pentagon noted that China “claims” the base in Djibouti is designed to help its navy carry out peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
“This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces,” it said.
The report acknowledged that a greater overseas naval logistics and basing footprint would enable China to expand its humanitarian, search and rescue and non-combatant evacuation operations.
But, it added, “[a] more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure would also be essential to enable China to project and sustain military power at greater distances from China.”
The report also said the Chinese navy’s “evolving focus – from ‘offshore waters defense’ to a mix of ‘offshore waters defense’ and ‘far seas protection’ – reflects the high command’s expanding interest in a wider operational reach.”
“Similarly, doctrinal references to ‘forward edge defense’ that would move potential conflicts far from China’s territory suggest PLA strategists envision an increasingly global role.”
Djibouti has hosted U.S. troops for more than a dozen years, and its base at Camp Lemonnier is the third-largest employer in the country of some 800,000 people, Defense Secretary James Mattis observed during a visit there last April.
France and Japan also have overseas bases there – in Japan’s case, also its first military base abroad.
The Bab el-Mandeb strait, a narrow waterway between Yemen and Djibouti, controls access from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, as well as southern Israel and Jordan.