As two Chinese warships set sail for Djibouti ferrying a military task force to its newly opened base in the country, China's official explanation of the mission was to assist and resupply its naval peacekeeping forces in the region. After all, establishing its presence in the East African nation would aid China's long-standing anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, alongside humanitarian projects in Africa and western Asia.
But while China may downplay the importance of moving the amphibious transport dock and mobile landing platform vessels to Djibouti, the significance of establishing its first permanent overseas military facilities in such a strategic location is undeniable.
The deployment, initiated July 11, not only represents the natural extension of China's expanding interests and security mission in the region, but it also heralds Beijing's increasingly global ambitions, a trend driving a parallel growth in the active involvement of the Chinese military in foreign missions. A mature and expansive logistical network is critical to supporting China’s appetite for projecting force and engaging in global security. The Djibouti base is likely to be the first of many to follow around the world and will become a testing ground for China's more proactive foreign policy.
For now, Djibouti will provide a more comprehensive resupply point for the constant stream of warships traveling back and forth from China. The base can also serve as a crucial link in its logistics chain supporting United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa as well as any future Chinese interventions on the African continent. Chinese maritime patrol aircraft stationed at airfields in Djibouti can also extend China's reach farther into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, Djibouti has already proved critical to Beijing. When China staged a rescue operation to evacuate its citizens and others from Yemen in April, Chinese personnel took them to Djibouti.
China is not the first country to recognize the strategic potential of establishing a military presence in Djibouti. Its position on the Bab el-Mandeb has long fostered significant attention from world powers. In 2015, roughly 900 million metric tons of goods — including almost 10 percent of the world's maritime oil trade — passed through the Suez Canal and the strait. Consequently, Djibouti's leaders are able to rent its territory to a host of global navies looking to ensure the continuation of the vital maritime trade taking place off its shores. Tenants include France, Japan and the United States, and China's decision to move in just a few miles away from a key Pentagon base has caused consternation among some U.S. commentators.
But China is far from late to the party. In fact, it has been Djibouti’s lone long-term strategic partner. While other countries have been willing to pay for basing rights, China has invested across multiple sectors of the Djiboutian economy, including in rail and port infrastructure, banks, industrial parks and more. For Djibouti's leadership, China's growing presence could be the country's best chance of development in the years ahead.