China’s ‘neighbouring base’ in Djibouti worries U.S.

Naval power expansion:Established after the 9/11 attacks, Camp Lemonnier is home to 4,000 U.S. personnel.NYT, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

United States and China are about to become neighbours in this sun-scorched patch of East African desert. China is constructing its first overseas military base in Djibouti — just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, one of the Pentagon’s largest and most important foreign installations.

With increasing tensions over China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea, U.S. strategists worry that a naval port so close to Camp Lemonnier could provide a front-row seat to the staging ground for U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

Surveillance concerns

Established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Camp Lemonnier is home to 4,000 personnel. Some are involved in highly secretive missions, including targeted drone killings in West Asia and the Horn of Africa, and the raid last month in Yemen that left a member of the Navy SEALs dead.

The base, which is run by the Navy and abuts Djibouti’s international airport, is the only permanent U.S. military installation in Africa.

Beyond surveillance concerns, U.S. officials, citing the billions of dollars in Chinese loans to Djibouti’s heavily indebted government, wonder about the long-term durability of an alliance that has served Washington well in its global fight against Islamic extremism.

Just as important, experts say, the base’s construction is a milestone marking Beijing’s expanding global ambitions — with potential implications for the United States’s long-standing military dominance.

“It’s naval power expansion for protecting commerce and China’s regional interests in the Horn of Africa,” said Peter Dutton, professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“This is what expansionary powers do. China has learned lessons from Britain of 200 years ago,” he added.

A resting facility: Beijing

Chinese officials play down the significance of the base, saying it will largely support anti-piracy operations that have helped quell the threat to international shipping once posed by marauding Somalis.

“The support facility will be mainly used to provide rest and rehabilitation for the Chinese troops taking part in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian rescue,” the Defence Ministry in Beijing said.

In addition to having 2,400 peacekeepers in Africa, China has used its vessels to escort more than 6,000 boats from many countries through the Gulf of Aden, the Ministry said.

China’s military has also evacuated its citizens caught in the world’s trouble spots. In 2011, the military plucked 35,000 from Libya, and 600 from Yemen in 2015.

Beijing also said that China was not budging from its “defensive” military policy and that the base did not indicate an “arms race or military expansion.”

U.S. officials say they were blindsided by Djibouti’s decision, announced last year, to give China a 10-year lease for the land.

In interviews, Djiboutian officials expressed little concern that two strategic adversaries would be sharing space.

It helps that the Chinese are paying $20 million a year in rent to the country, on top of the billions they are spending to finance critical infrastructure, including ports and airports, a new rail line and a pipeline that will bring desperately needed drinking water from neighbouring Ethiopia.NYT