OPINION | China in Djibouti : Setting the Strategic Foot in Indian Ocean Region
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OPINION | China in Djibouti : Setting the Strategic Foot in Indian Ocean Region

By Amrita Jash

On November 26, Beijing confirmed its plans to build the first overseas naval military base in  the East African nation of Djibouti. This is an important step forward in China’s strategic military development. Calling for its benign intentions of playing a greater role in ensuring regional peace and stability behind its overseas base, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Hong Lei said:

“The construction of the relevant facilities will help China’s navy and army further participate in UN peacekeeping operations, carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance”.

OPINION | China in Djibouti : Setting the Strategic Foot in Indian Ocean Region

But this Chinese ‘logic of peace’ against Djibouti does not stand strong. Despite being a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti holds geo-strategic advantage. It acts as a passage to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and most importantly, a strong base to combat Somalian piracy- a severe threat to shipping in Indian Ocean. Besides, it also serves as an important transit port regional and international shipping as well as a base for refueling. Given these strategic characteristics, China’s overseas base in Djibouti as a benign move calls for immediate attention. On the contrary, given the rising tensions in the high seas, especially in the Indian Ocean, where China faces severe challenge from United States and India- Djibouti acts as the litmus test of China’s foothold in the Indian Ocean.

What makes Indian Ocean important is the fact that it contains the vital sea lanes- acting as a strategic trade corridor. For more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through Indian Ocean choke points, with 40 per cent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 per cent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 per cent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait. This strategic calculus makes it imperative for any great power to strengthen its military bases in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). In this view, China adds no exception given this logic. Unlike United States and India, China witnesses a ‘pariah’ status in the IOR given its lack of geographical proximity as well as logistical support base. Facing this strategic disadvantage, it has become imperative for China to safeguard its economic and security interests in the Indian Ocean. And in doing so, China needs to strengthen its military presence and activities in the Indian Ocean- by building bases in the IOR and acting as an off-shore balancer.

Identifying the gap and tapping on its ‘charm offensive’, Djibouti acts as China’s gateway to Indian Ocean. Broadly, it aims to secure China’s national interest but specifically this strategic move acts as a countervailing force against other strong players in the Indian Ocean. This can be said so, as Djibouti hosts United States’ only African permanent naval base at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Officially, called Camp Lemonnier, it accommodates the Pentagon’s African Command (AFRICOM) and is used for CIA drone operations- for war on terror and combat piracy. While for India being a significant player in the Indian Ocean, Djibouti serves as the key base helping India to fight the war against piracy. Besides, Japan and France also have their military presence in Djibouti.

Image Attribute: Camp Lemmonier, Ambouli International Airport, Djibouti

Image Attribute: Camp Lemmonier, Ambouli International Airport, Djibouti

In connecting the strategic dots, China’s military installation in Djibouti raises significant alarms. Undoubtedly, it is an offshoot of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grand vision of building the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. Wherein, building China’s first overseas military outpost goes beyond the econometric mercantile logic as proposed by Xi. Rather it confirms the speculations over China’s  growing military intentions in the Indian Ocean. For Djibouti military base will provide China capabilities to respond to contingencies affecting freedom of navigation in and around the Persian Gulf- which is mainly controlled by the United States. Most importantly, by having its military base in Indian Ocean, China can expand its naval capabilities in terms of developing sea denial capabilities comprising of deployment of submarines in Indian Ocean and strategic anti access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. These anticipations over China’s military foothold in Indian Ocean through Djibouti, further strengthen the claims of China’s encirclement policy of “String of Pearls”- building naval ports to safeguard the Sea Lanes of Communications in order to rescue from the choke-points in the high seas. This strategic choice of China also quantify the change in China’s military strategy which exhibits a shift from “[t]he traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”- as highlighted in the 2015 Defence White Paper.

With its shifting ambition from continental power to sea power, China’s entry in Indian Ocean through Djibouti raise alarms for United States and India. For it hinders United States’ strategic interests by replacing its long standing dominance in the region both economically and militarily. And for India, it will act as another ‘pearl’ in China’s encirclement policy. In addition, it also exemplifies   India and China's competitive interest in Africa. Therefore, the way China will unfold its military muscle in this quarter of international water will clarify China’s motivations in the Indian Ocean. China’s limited role in IOR is deemed to get an impetus in terms of a greater and stronger military presence in the region. Hence, China’s actions in Djibouti will draw the map of its great power ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Wherein, the scope of China’s activities in IOR will only amplify with time both literally and figuratively. 

About The Author:

Amrita Jash (K-5665-2015) is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Twitter ID: @amritajash

Cite This Article:

Jash, Amrita. "China in Djibouti : Setting the Strategic Foot in Indian Ocean Region." IndraStra 1, no. 12 (2015): 0548. http://www.indrastra.com/2015/11/2015/12/OPINION-China-in-Djibouti-Setting-Strategic-Foot-Indian-Ocean-Region-0548.html. ISSN 2381-3652