Whose line is it anyway? The growing threat of China’s maritime presence

Whose line is it anyway? The growing threat of China’s maritime presence

China sent its first ever deployment of troops to its military facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa this week, under the guise of anti-piracy operations and humanitarian missions in the region. The facility sits at the shipping chokehold of the Gulf of Aden, and Japan, India and Vietnam are likely to view the deployment as a threat to their domestic routes amid rising maritime tensions worldwide.

As China seeks to create a “string of pearls” from Hong Kong to Africa via Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it is no doubt moving to secure its vast oil and raw mineral imports from the Middle East and Africa – but at what cost to the security of global waterways as a whole?

Source: Associated Press

Djibouti, a resource-poor nation of 875,000 people, made international headlines last week when China deployed a group of military personnel and equipment to its first ever permanent overseas base on its coastline. To the north of the country lies the Mandeb Strait and the Suez-Aden canal, a channel which sees ten percent of the world’s oil exports and twenty percent of its commercial exports each year. Given its proximity to Yemen and the pirate-infested western edge of the Indian Ocean, compounded by its relative political stability, Djibouti is now one of the most important security beachheads in the battle to secure global maritime routes. Accordingly, China’s deployment to the tiny country signals a major new chapter in the expansion of the rising giant’s military presence abroad.

China first announced the plan for the so-called support base in 2015, beginning construction the following year. China has since signed an initial 10-year lease for the site, and will pay USD20 million in rent annually. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, its purpose is to support Chinese troops escorting ships in the Gulf of Aden and in waters off the Somali coast, serve humanitarian rescue missions, all the while driving Djibouti’s economic and social development. China’s new partnership with Djibouti follows years of economic engagement on the continent; Chinese investors and workers continue to flock to the continent, and Beijing paid for the entire USD200 million construction of the African Union’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, named “China’s gift to Africa”. The base, then, would appear to serve as an altruistic outlet for a country determined to strengthen its stance as a global leader in the vacuum created by US President Trump.


The US Department of Defense has other ideas, reporting that the base, as well as regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, reflects China’s growing influence in the region. Chinese officials have rejected this suggestion outright, citing “groundless speculation” and pointing to America’s own bases in the country as proof of the US’ own hegemonic project abroad. Since the end of 2002, Djibouti has been home to Camp Lemonnier, the only US base on the African continent, along with other bases belonging to its French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese allies. With China entering the fray, the delicate maritime balance of the region will be tilted even further.

China shows no sign of slowing down, with a military budget second only to the US and expanding annually: defence spending is set to double to USD233 billion in 2020. The Djibouti deployment follows close on the tails of reports that China plans to increase the size of its marine corps from 20,000 to 100,000 personnel, an increase of 400 per cent. When complete, the Chinese base will be home to approximately 1,000 military personnel, and an unknown number of Chinese ships and aircraft. Satellite images indicate sites capable of accommodating China’s Wing Loong or Wing Loong II drones, roughly equivalent to the US military’s MQ-1 Predator.

China’s maritime expansion isn’t limited to Djibouti’s shores. Beijing continues to build controversial military facilities on islands in the South China Sea, with recent satellite images showing missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being constructed on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands. At the same time, a Chinese firm has been making significant investments in Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea in Balochistan province, Pakistan, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, building facilities that are likely to be able to accommodate Chinese warships in the near future. Djibouti may be China’s first permanent overseas base, but it is unlikely to be its last.

The implications of the Djibouti move extend beyond an ongoing US-China hegemonic rivalry, with Beijing’s expansionary policies threatening vital waterways between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In May this year, a US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in a so-called freedom of navigation mission, the first challenge to China’s claim over the waterway since President Trump took office. China responded by hinting the exercise could lead to “accidents” in the region.

Djibouti represents a shiny addition to China’s ever-expanding “string of pearls”, the name given to its envisioned network of naval ports to secure maritime lanes of transit and commerce between China and the African continent. At a time of rapid Chinese maritime investment and military expansion, global waterways are particularly vulnerable to the renewed rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and routes between the Middle East and Asia face an unpredictable future.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Economics

About Author

Joanna Eva

Joanna Eva is a London-based analyst and contributor with a range of clients in the risk consulting industry. She specializes in Asian political and economic analysis, having lived and travelled extensively in the region for close to a decade. She holds a Master of Law from the University of New South Wales and received her Bachelor of International Studies from the University of Sydney. She is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese.