China is establishing its first military base in Africa, according to a top U.S. general, providing yet another sign of its growing reach beyond the Asia-Pacific.
"They are going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa," U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, recently told defense reporters.
The base, he said, would serve as a logistics hub for China to be able to "extend their reach."
Setting up a military base in Africa makes perfect sense given China’s vast economic presence in the region, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. The base would be cheaper than China’s current, temporary arrangements that allow for docking ships at Djibouti ports to conduct naval patrols, he said.
The base also gives China an airfield that could significantly improve its intelligence gathering capabilities over the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Eastern Libya and well into Central Africa.
The move into Africa represents a challenge to the dominance of the United States, which has its own military base in Djibouti, at Camp Lemonnier, from which it conducts intelligence, counter-piracy and counterterrorism operations.
"U.S. global leadership is predicated heavily on the U.S. role in protecting and to an extent controlling sea lanes of communication," Pham said. ”If China establishes itself as a fellow protector of the global commons, then it certainly increases its stature."
Sen. Chris CoonsChris CoonsHow Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle Coons: ‘Exactly the wrong time’ for State Dept cuts Dem pushed plan for both sides to admit to abusing Senate rules: report MORE (D-Del.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, said the U.S. has to be vigilant in the face of China’s growing ambitions.
“Overall, China’s presence in Africa is certainly something we need to pay more attention to, but not just in Djibouti. Africa’s middle class is growing faster than ever, and the continent offers great opportunities for partnerships between both governments and the private sector," Coons said.
"We don’t want to lose out on those opportunities to Chinese companies or the Chinese government, whose interests might not always align with ours,” he added.
China has recently signaled its desire to extend its military presence to more parts of the globe.
In a May white paper, China said its army would "adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations."
China said its navy would "gradually shift its focus from 'offshore waters defense' to the combination of 'offshore waters defense' with 'open seas protection.' "
The move into Africa follows what U.S. officials consider increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea by Beijing, centered on a series of man-made islands that China claims are sovereign territory.
The U.S. has begun stepping up "freedom of navigation" exercises in the South China Sea to ensure China does not use the disputed ownership of the islands to restrict access for planes and ships.
The U.S.'s top commander in the Asia Pacific region, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, over the weekend admonished China for its aggressive posture the South China Sea.
"For decades, China embraced Deng Xiaopeng's philosophy for addressing disputes. Essentially, be patient. China's recent actions, though, appear to be walking away from Deng's desire to 'find a solution acceptable to all.' In fact, China has transitioned from a patient nation to a nation in a hurry," he said at the Halifax International Security Forum.
For now, China’s activities in Africa do not appear to be provocative, with their troops participating in a United Nations mission and the training of African military officials, Rodriguez said.
But Pham said even a small military presence in Africa could later turn into something greater. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush invited three Chinese warships to participate in counter-piracy missions around the Gulf of Aden.
That has now grown to more than 50 Chinese ships temporarily docked at a port in Djibouti, he said.
"Be careful what you ask for," he added.