The US’s Camp Lemonnier, a special-operations outpost in the sweltering East African country of Djibouti, will soon have a new neighbour.
China will open a new naval base — what it has called “logistical support” facilities — nearby, bringing the US into closer proximity with a rival power than some officers have ever experienced.
“You would have to characterise it as a military base,” Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, chief of US Africa Command, told reporters in Washington this week. “It’s a first for them. They have never had an overseas base.”
“We’ve never had a base of, let’s just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be,” Waldhauser told Breaking Defence. “So there’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of growing going on.”
The base, which Waldhauser said would likely be finished sometime this summer, will be several miles away from Lemonnier.
Lemonnier, and Djibouti, are strategically located in the Horn of Africa. They sit on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to Egypt’s Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.
They’re also close to the restive country of Somalia and a short distance from the Arabian Peninsula — particularly Yemen, where the US has for some time been supporting a Saudi Arabian military campaign and before that was carrying out operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
More than 4,000 US personnel are at Lemonnier, the US’s largest permanent base on the continent, and it has long hosted sensitive US drone and air operations. The US also has run drone operations out of East Africa, and China has 2,400 peacekeepers on the continent.
“Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns, and I think that our base there is significant to US because it’s not only AFRICOM that utilises” it, Waldhauser told Breaking Defence, but also US Central Command, which operates in the Middle East, Joint Special Operations Command, and European Command.
The French and Japanese militaries are also present in Djibouti. The country has been used as a base of operations against piracy in nearby waters. China has said its ships have escorted more than 6,000 vessels through the Gulf of Aden.
Beijing has described the new facility as a support base for its operations with countries in the region.
“China and Djibouti consulted with each other and reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable the Chinese troops to better fulfil escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said in January 2016, when the Chinese lease was announced.
Concern in Washington and elsewhere may be that the base will eventually take on a larger role in Beijing’s foreign military operations. A 2015 US Defence Department report, cited by The Diplomat, confirmed that Chinese attack and missile submarines were operating in the Indian Ocean.
Countries along the Indian Ocean may also look upon the base warily, suspicious that it could be an anchor in a chain of bases and facilities along the ocean’s coast, supplementing outposts like the port at Gwadar in Pakistan.
“It’s naval power expansion for protecting commerce and China’s regional interests in the Horn of Africa,” Peter Dutton, a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College, told The Hindu in February. “This is what expansionary powers do. China has learned lessons from Britain of 200 years ago.”
The US “has spoken to the Djiboutian government about it,” Waldhauser said, “and they know what our concerns are.”
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