China has joined a small club of nations with legal bases outside of its sovereign territory. Currently the US leads the world in foreign bases, both legal and illegal (such as those in Syria). Russia maintains two legal bases outside of Russian and former Soviet territory, one in Vietnam and one in Syria which is set to expand after Russia signed a 49 year agreement with Damascus to extend and expand a permanent Russian security presence in the country. Russia used to maintain a military base in Cuba although it was closed in 2002. Some speculate that Russia may reopen its Cuban base although no official plans are in the works.
Now, China has opened a facility in the East African state of Djibouti. The location of Djibouti as well as the timing of the base’s opening is highly significant.
First of all Djibouti is already home to bases belonging to China’s historic rival Japan as well as its current self-described adversary, the United States. China’s presence in Djibouti sends a clear message to both Japan and the United States who the youngest and freshest of the powers in Djibouti now is.
Secondly, with the United States already sowing conflicts in crucial spots along China’s One Belt–One Road trade and commerce superhighways, it has become crucial for China to develop a military presence in a place that is already a possibly destabilising hotspot along the One Belt–One Road.
Djibouti sits opposite Yemen on the African side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, the strait which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea and by extrapolation, the Suez Canal.
As I previously wrote in The Duran,
“Ships on the maritime New Silk Road are set to pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Currently, the Strait is under naval blockade from America’s ally Saudi Arabia. The results which have meant a humanitarian disaster for Yemen which is the subject of the Saudi blockade, could also threaten China’s shipping routes to the Red Sea”.
Now that China has a naval base on the other side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Saudi naval blockade of Yemen is up against one of the most powerful navies in the world. Should things come to blows over Chinese and allied shipping to the Suez Canal, it goes without saying that such a fight would be over before it begun. Saudi Arabia has the least disciplined and most poorly trained armed forces of any wealthy nation in the world while China, a nuclear super-power has famously disciplined troops.
Finally, the timing of the opening of the Chinese base coincides with celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. Chinese President Xi Jinping used the ceremonies in Beijing to send a clear message to the wider world.
— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) August 1, 2017
At the ceremony, President Xi stated
“The Chinese people love peace. We will never seek aggression or expansion, but we have the confidence to defeat all invasions.
We will never allow any people, organisation or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time, in any form. No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests”.
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) August 1, 2017
The message of Chinese strength, modernity and perseverance in the face of threats was a clear warning to any would be rivals as well as a sign of reassurance not only to a domestic audience but to China’s regional and global partners, including and especially Russia and Pakistan.
China’s new facility in Djibouti is in many Chinese eyes long overdue. China is a military and economic super-power. If former Imperial states long past their glory like Britain and France can maintain many bases abroad (more than China and Russia combined), there is no reason why a modern super-power shouldn’t freely exercise its legal right to do the same. This is what China has done and it is only the beginning.