China’s Djibouti Base Raises The Flag

Satellite image taken in early 2017 showing location of Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port and construction of adjacent Chinese naval base. Picture credit: Google Maps.

THE PLA-NAVY formally opened its base in Djibouti this week, China’s first military base overseas — though Beijing prefers to call it support facilities. Symbolically, it raised the flag in Djibouti on the same day as the PLA’s 90th anniversary.

The base is next to the Doraleh Multi-purpose Port to the west of Djibouti City on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura which opens out into the Gulf of Aden. The $420 million port was only formally opened in May and is still half-finished. The biggest Chinese port construction project in the region, it was built by China State Construction and Engineering Corp. (CSCEC). China Merchants Holdings International is a stakeholder in the port’s operations.

A base comprising an encampment adjacent to a Chinese-built commercial port is a model seen in the making in Gwadar in Pakistan and likely to be repeated in Sri Lanka, and perhaps elsewhere.

Bases operated by the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force are only a few kilometers to the southeast. The United States runs some of its most secret drone operations in the Middle East from its Camp Lemonnier base next to Djibouti’s international airport.

Map of Djibouti City showing location of Doraleh Mult-purpose Port adjacent to China's naval base and the US military's Camp Lemonnier.

China’s base has been under construction since early last year, at a reported cost of $590 million. It covers a little more than one-third of a square kilometer and can accommodate several thousand military personnel. Satellite imagery of a later date than Google’s seen above suggests hangar facilities for helicopters and a short runway have been built before berths.

However, there are no deepwater channels running to the base, so the neighboring port, which does have deepwater berths, one of which is reserved for the PLA-N, is going to have to be living up to its name.

China has taken a ten-year lease on the land for its naval base and is a major funder of the Djibouti government, footing the bill for at least $14 billion-worth of infrastructure from railways to ports, airports and water conduits.

The rent China is paying for its naval base is not publicly disclosed (our man with his nose in the sand reckons that it is $20 million a year), but the US pays $63 million a year under its 20-year lease on its base.

The debate over the extent to which the base represents power projection will only continue, though that power projection will likely be steady but incremental as Beijing practices at being a world power.

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