Tag Archives: Djibouti

China Adjusts The Maritime Military Maths

Screengrab from CCTV coverage of the commissioning ceremony into the PLA-Navy of the Long March 18 SSBN (left), the Dalian destroyer (centre) and the Hainan helicopter landing dock (right) at Yulin Naval Base, Hainan Island, April 23, 2021

PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S attendance at the commissioning of the PLA Navy (PLA-N)’s first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, the Hainan, along with a new destroyer and a submarine that can fire ballistic missiles, is a further sign of the importance Beijing attaches to China’s ability to project power well beyond its shores.

The high-profile ceremony was held at the Yulin Naval Base, home of the PLA-N’s South Sea fleet, on Hainan Island on the 72nd anniversary of the PLAN’s founding. The image above of the three vessels, with the Hainan to the right, is a screenshot from the extensive coverage by state TV.

The Hainan carries helicopters of the size and range that would be used to support landing and on-shore operations. Such helicopter support would be needed in the event of, say, an amphibious invasion of a mountainous shore, such as, for example, the east coast of Taiwan.

The vessel, formally a Yushen-class helicopter landing dock, is similar in size to Japan’s helicopter-bearing ships, so it can probably carry around 28 helicopters. Eight Changhe Z-8CJ transport helicopters were on deck for the commissioning ceremony. One of two sister ships is undergoing sea trials; the other is still being fitted out. A further eight are reportedly on order.

Xi also commissioned into service the PLA-N’s third Type 055 destroyer, the Dalian, reputedly the largest in its class of warships and whose role is to support carrier and expeditionary strike groups and amphibious forces.

The third vessel was a Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Long March 18. It is at least the sixth of these to enter PLA-N service and can carry a dozen ballistic missile with a range of 7,400 km. 

The PLA-N’s base in Djibouti has just been expanded to accommodate the new ships. A new pier is also large enough to let the PLA-N’s aircraft carriers dock there.

This capacity will let Beijing project naval power into the Indian Ocean through the deployment of an operational carrier group. Extending that to the Mediterranean and perhaps the Gulf will follow.

That will not be a direct challenge to the US Navy, but the signalling would be clear.

If China signs an agreement with a Pacific island nation for a naval base, it will indicate that Beijing feels confident about facing the US Navy head-on beyond its near-shore waters.

That will probably be some time in the 2030s when the PLA-N is scheduled to have half a dozen carrier groups.

The US Navy currently has eleven carrier groups and unquestioned maritime superiority. However, ships are not the only factor in the equation. Beijing is investing heavily in long-range, precision anti-ship missiles and other anti-access-cum-area denial capabilities in order to change the military maths.

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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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Djibouti Bound

Chinese warships leaving Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China on July 11, 2017 bound for China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Photo credit: Xinhua/Wu Dengfeng.

CHINESE MILITARY PERSONNEL are now en route for Djibouti where they will garrison China’s first overseas military base, which it started building last year at a cost of $590 million.

The photo above shows the departure from Zhanjiang in Guangdong province of the South Sea Fleet’s Jinggang Shan, a Yuzhao class Type 071 amphibious transport dock that had previously been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,  along with a second PLA-Navy ship, China’s sole semi-submersible Donghai Island class naval auxiliary ship.

The Horn of Africa country, only half as big again as municipal Beijing, is already home to US, French and Japanese military bases with a Saudi Arabian one, like China’s, under construction.

China’s base will be used for supporting peacekeeping (Beijing has deployed its first UN peacekeeping combat troops in South Sudan), international anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden (in which China has taken part since 2008) and humanitarian aid.

It will also provide advanced support, should it be needed, for the more than 250,000 Chinese now working in Africa — and the Chinese investments where they work. Evacuations of nationals have already been needed in Libya and Yemen.

China stresses that Djibouti will be a logistics or support, not military base. The question is, however it is described, whether it is the first of one, several or many such overseas beachheads.

The US defence department’s recent annual report to the US Congress on China’s military prowess took this definitive view:

As China’s global footprint and international interests have gown, its military modernization program and become more focused on supporting missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea land security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). In February 2016, China began constitution of a military base in Djibouti that could be complete within the next year. China likely will seek to establish additional military based in countries with which it has long-standing, friendly relationships.

The US defence department pinpoints Pakistan as best fitting that bill. Given the growing economic interests at stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through both some insecure but strategically important territory, and China’s extensive role in building a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, that seems a logical deduction.

However, many other countries will not be receptive to the notion of hosting PLA bases, and Chinese military doctrine sees prowess in cyber, space and information warfare as more potent than building a traditional network of military allies.

Indeed, current doctrine sees power projection assets as a vulnerability in modern warfare. That alone will be cause for China to move cautiously on establishing further bases.

At the same time, Beijing will use China’s economic linkages to cement support among those with similar security interests and to deter adversary power projection in third countries, particularly that by the United States.

For now, gaining access to foreign commercial ports for as a logistics base and for pre-positioning of support of “far seas” deployments by the PLA-Navy is likely to be the order of the day. That, anyway, is what would be needed for the HA/DR operations that Beijing is likely to concentrate on while its military learns to find its way around the world.

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