China's first overseas logistic base for warships is being built in the East African nation of Djibouti. As bilateral trade with African countries grows, the base will help China better safeguard its national interests and manage the increasing peacekeeping responsibilities it is taking on in the continent. But experts say the base may not be limited to resupplying ships in the future.
About 7,700 kilometers away from Beijing, in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, China's first overseas installation for naval vessels is under construction.
Scheduled to be completed in 2017, the base is set to resupply Chinese warships, according to government statements.
But despite Beijing's insistence that the facility will simply help with escort missions, peacekeeping and humanitarian rescues in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia, many have argued this move represents Chinese "military expansion" beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
"Through exaggerating or distorting, they attempt to hype the 'threat of China' and tarnish China's image, so as to suppress China's efforts to build maritime power," Li Jie, a Beijing-based maritime expert, told the Global Times.
"The base is far less than a military base in its scale and function," said Zhang Junshe, a researcher from PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute.
"The base will be a logistic hub for Chinese vessels to get replenishment and temporary rest. It differs from U.S.-style military bases, which have become bridgeheads for the country to easily and quickly wield military deterrence or intervention to other territories," Li noted.
The Republic of Djibouti, located in a strategically important position between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, hosts the military facilities of several countries, including the U.S., Japan and France, the country's former colonial ruler. Italy and Spain also have permanent military installations in the country, according to a recent report by Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.
These countries have stationed a variety of assets in these bases, including personnel, ships, UAVs and surveillance aircraft which are used for anti-terror and anti-piracy operations in Africa and the Middle East.
The news that China will build a "military base" in Djibouti was first revealed in May last year, when Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh told AFP that "discussions are ongoing," and China's presence would be "welcome."
Since then, it has aroused wide attention and concern. The U.S. even reportedly protested against it.
"Washington protested against the China-Djibouti pact and expressed concern over China's plans to build a military base in the Obock region, but to no avail," according to an article published in April on foreignaffairs.com, a U.S.-based international affairs news portal.
At a regular press briefing on November 26, 2015, China's foreign ministry first confirmed that China was negotiating with Djibouti over the construction of a "logistics facility." Spokesman Hong Lei citied the need to resolve resupply difficulties for Chinese escort vessels, adding "[The facility] will be significant for Chinese army to fulfill its international obligations and safeguard global and regional peace and stability."
Three months later at a press briefing by Chinese defense ministry on February 25, spokesman Wu Qian told media that China had reached an agreement with Djibouti to build a facility and construction had already begun.
According to official figures, China has deployed more than 30,000 personnel on peacekeeping missions, the most of any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Since 2008, China has sent 22 escort fleets, a total of more than 60 vessels, to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, escorting more than 6,000 ships from home and abroad.
In March last year, hundreds of Chinese nationals threatened by escalating violence in Yemen were evacuated to Djibouti by their government.
But currently, these fleets need to dock in the ports of other countries to get rest and food supplies. "They need to organize people to purchase food locally. Besides, due to different types of fuels, refueling is also a problem," Zhang said.
The new base will help China save money. Yang Huawen, a captain from China's Northern Theater Command who joined a 10-month peacekeeping operation in Mali in 2014, is happy this facility is being built.
"In those tropical areas, the food goes bad quickly. The cost of mending equipment and maintenance is high," Yang told the Global Times. "Building a logistic hub in the region can provide stable supplies efficiently and economically."
Djibouti, with a landmass of 23,200 square kilometers of which 90 percent is volcanic desert, is poor in natural resources. Its ability to produce fruits, vegetables, and seafood is limited, according to a Chinese national who has spent time in the country. "Most of its vegetables are imported from its neighbor Ethiopia. Vegetables sell for there as much as five to 10 times what they do on the domestic market in China," said the person.
Zhang also cited another advantage of the new facility - the Chinese government needn't conduct diplomatic negotiations with the host country each time its vessels dock in their port.
The base will be part of the Doraleh Multipurpose Port which is being constructed by China State Construction Engineering Corp with a total investment of $590 million, according to Phoenix TV.
The port, about a 20-minute drive from Djbouti City, the capital, covers an area of 2.27 million square meters and 1,375 meters of coastline. It will have six berths after completion, one of which will be used for Chinese military vessels, according to the report.
"Many countries have military installations in Djibouti. Djibouti is a sovereign state. If China wants to build a naval base here, the government will also support it," Omar, a media worker from La Nation, a Djiboutian French-language weekly newspaper, told Phoenix TV. "As long as it is to fight against the terrorisms and piracy."
Djibouti also hopes the Chinese outpost can help empower its military.
In a statement titled "Will the Chinese army move to Djibouti quickly?" posted on its official website, the Embassy of the Republic of Djibouti in China implies the answer is "yes" by quoting its president Ismail Omar Guelleh and defense minister Hassan Darar Houffaneh.
"We hope to have more military cooperation with China, so as to strengthen the muscles of Djbouti's armed forces," said Houffaneh was quoted as saying.
In addition to rent paid to the government and the jobs created at the port, the logistic hub will also bring locals other benefits. Several Chinese who work in Djibouti revealed that not only the Chinese but also the locals welcome the Chinese military presence.
"The foreign military presence has deterred the country away from wars or riots," a Chinese who works in Djibouti told the Global Times on condition of anonymity. "The Chinese lease agreement will bring the country a large amount of funds."
Beijing hasn't disclosed how much exactly. A report by International Business Times says China will pay $100 million per year in rent for the base.
In 2014, the U.S. renewed its 10-year lease with Djibouti for its military base, agreeing to pay $63 million annually, which was nearly double the annual rent the country paid in its first 10-year-lease, according to a report by Qatar-based news portal aljazeera.com.
Djibouti has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some $1.58 billion, so rent from military installations is highly important.
"The country is still generally poor and it is thirsty for investment and development opportunities," said the Chinese working in Djibouti. The per capita GDP of Djibouti was $1,229 in 2014, a tenth of the world average, according to tradingeconomics.com, a website that provides economic data.
China is also building other infrastructure in Djibouti, including an international airport, a water supply project and $4 billion railway line linking Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, to Djibouti's new port.
China is the largest trade partner of landlocked Ethiopia, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, with almost 90 percent of its imports going through Djibouti.
Besides, POLY-GCL Petroleum Group, a Chinese enterprise, announced in early March that it will fund a liquid national gas (LNG) facility in Djibouti.
According to LNG World News Staff, the terminal is part of the group's $4 billion gas project which will allow Ethiopia to export gas to China via a pipeline from Ethiopia to Djibouti.
Building this logistic hub will be a new way for China to protect its rising interests overseas while sharing more obligations to maintain international security, Chinese foreign affairs minister Wang Yi told press conference on March 8.
He said that more than 30,000 Chinese enterprises have expanded their presence overseas with millions of Chinese workers going abroad. Non-financial foreign investment reached $118 billion last year, and overseas assets total trillions of U.S. dollars.
"I would like to tell you explicitly that China will never repeat the expansion road of traditional powers, nor play power politics," Wang said.
Military expert Li Jie said as China's maritime interests expand overseas, he doesn't rule out the possibility that the country will increase the military component of the Djibouti base.
The U.S. maintains about 800 military bases in around 160 countries, which cost approximately $156 billion annually, according to military scholar David Vine, MintPress News Desk reported on March 7.
"But we will always stick to an 'active defense' strategy and commitment to peace," Li stated.
According to a white paper issued by China's Ministry of National Defense in May last year, "active defense" means "will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked."
In its annual report in May last year, the U.S. Department of Defense predicted that Beijing will "establish several access points" in the Indian Ocean within a decade.
Li said such predictions are not groundless. "China is actively promoting the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and such facilities will help shield the routes along the road," he said.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will stretch from China to the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and on to the Mediterranean.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to jointly build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, which have received support from many countries.
"If the Maritime Silk Road unfolds as planned, increased trade through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea will mean more need for anti-piracy missions - which makes it even more crucial for China to have resupply facilities nearby," The Diplomat said in an article in January.