Chinese leaders plan to build a military base in Djibouti to “extend their reach,” the head of the United States Africa Command said last week.
The reported comments by Gen David Rodriguez serve to confirm speculation that China intends to buttress its growing economic involvement in Africa with a military presence, which US officials have however been downplayed.
“We are quite optimistic about our co-operation and our engagement with China in Africa,” Peter Barlerin, an official in the State Department’s Africa Bureau, recently told reporters.
Beijing’s apparent choice of Djibouti for its first African base means Chinese and US forces will be operating in proximity to one another in the small East African country. The Pentagon stations some 4,000 troops at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it has maintained a Horn of Africa surveillance and strike base for the past 13 years.
The reported military confluence of the world’s two most powerful nations may be a sign that competition between China and the US in Africa is expanding beyond the economic sphere.
Anxiety about such a potential rivalry was expressed in August when some US Congress members publicly urged the Obama administration to dissuade Djibouti from allowing China to base its troops there.
But despite the State Department criticism of Djibouti’s human-rights record, the US gives the government of President Omar Guelleh substantial amounts of aid. The US also agreed last year to pay Djibouti $70 million annually for the next 20 years in lease fees for Camp Lemonnier, where the Pentagon has spent some $250 million on infrastructure improvements.
Gen Rodriguez’s November 20 remarks to a group of US military-focused journalists — as reported in The Hill, a publication that covers the US Congress — indicate that Djibouti’s relationship with Washington will not prevent it from making military deals with China.
Last year, Beijing and Djibouti signed a security and defence deal and earlier this month Chinese Army Chief of Staff Gen Fang Fenghui met with President Guelleh in conjunction with the general’s visit to a Chinese warship that was taking on supplies in Djibouti.
China Military Online, an official army publication, reported that the two expressed willingness to “deepen pragmatic co-operation between the two countries and two militaries.” The Djibouti leader had told the French news agency AFP in May that a Chinese military deployment in his country would be “welcome.”
China has made enormous infrastructure investments in Djibouti, including a rail link to Ethiopia, an airport and port facilities.
Beijing has simultaneously stepped up its military activities in East Africa. Chinese vessels have taken part in anti-piracy operations off Somalia since 2008 while China has contributed 800 troops to the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Sudan.
“It would make a great deal of sense for China to have a base there,” Washington-based Africa analyst J Peter Pham said in regard to Djibouti in an interview with The EastAfrican earlier this year.
Chinese military aircraft with a range of 2,500 miles would be able to operate over large swathes of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula from a base in Djibouti, Mr Pham noted, adding that a Chinese military facility in the strategically situated in the Horn “would not be in the US’s strategic interest.”