Barely eight months after setting up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, next door to the United States’ Camp Lemonnier, Washington says China has started playing dirty, aiming military grade lasers at cockpits of US military aircraft, resulting in “minor eye injuries” to two US pilots.
Now the US says it has filed a diplomatic complaint over this “bullying” which has allegedly heightened in recent weeks, compromising the safety of its aircrew in Djibouti.
The lasers present a serious problem to pilots, when aimed at their aircraft, as they have the potential to injure or temporarily blind them, a serious aviation safety risk, especially during take-off and landing.
“These are very serious incidents. We have formally demarched the Chinese government, and we’ve requested that the Chinese investigate these incidents,” Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson said, adding that they were confident it was the Chinese doing this.
This is the first time in Africa that the two global powers are having a military ‘harassment tiff’ and it will be interesting how Beijing will respond to this accusation of bullying.
In 2016, the Pentagon objected to the proximity of the Chinese military base to its own, but this was ignored by Djibouti.
Source of concern
In July 2017, China became the latest country to set up an overseas base in Djibouti, cementing Beijing’s growing clout outside of being an economic and diplomatic superpower in Africa.
The US says it has so far recorded 10 incidences since July and this was becoming a source of concern, given that the two countries militaries have had good relations in Djibouti ever since China set up the base. The US has operated a base next to the international airport in Djibouti since 2002.
“The Djibouti government is free to work with who they want to. However, our concern is the safety of our service members, and so we raised the issue with China, and we expect China to investigate it thoroughly,” Ms White said.
One of the planes targeted was a Lockheed C130 Hercules US military transport.
“The reports we received from our pilots indicate that on three occasions the lasers were military grade and came from the Chinese base nearby,” Marine Lt-Col Chris Logan said.
In 2016, a US congressman protested to former Secretary of State John Kerry that the US strategic interests in Djibouti and the region could be undermined in the face of China’s presence.
It is understood that the Chinese base would eclipse Camp Lemonnier, the US permanent base in Djibouti, which hosts at least 4,000 military personnel.
Djibouti receives $63 million annually in rent for its base from Washington. It is speculated that China will be paying it a monthly rent of $100 million for its facility, which is located close to the US Camp Lemonnier.
In July last year, China sent two warships, carrying personnel for the overseas military base in Djibouti, tipping the global military positioning scale, with an eye on Africa.
One of the ships was an amphibious transport, which can load more helicopters and special troops capable of handling maritime and terrorist attacks.
At its establishment, Beijing said that the base would ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorts, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia.
“The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways,” Chinas navy commander Shen Jinlong said.
People’s Liberation Army
China began construction of a logistics base in Djibouti in 2016, saying that it would use it as resupply point for its navy ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia.
Beijing’s military paper, Global Times, in its editorial, laid bare what this facility would be, underpinning the fact that it would in fact be a military base.
“Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and will have troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point,” the paper said.
The actualisation of the military base, coupled with its economic interest now firmly places it at the centre of the continents growth and security.
The base is also being seen as a front to improving its growing arms race, through joint training and exercises, which has seen all the regional militaries use Chinese manufactured weapons in various sectors.
Apart from China and the US, Djibouti and Somalia also play hosts to military bases from France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar, who have a military presence in the region.