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China: yes to naval base in the Horn of Africa

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Not only civil infrastructure for China in Africa. As reported on February 25 by Reuter, the Asian giant has begun the construction of a naval base on the coast of Djibouti whose function, officially, it will be to support humanitarian, peacekeeping and escort missions in the area of Eastern Africa. China would become the third country, with France and the United States, to have a naval military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in a strategic position from a military point of view and from that of the control of commercial routes. Apart from the gear there, is the overall mechanism that matters. China wants to gradually expand its sphere of influence on the international stage, by setting up a network of civilian and military infrastructure that could support operations on a plan that would soon be called global.

The new base, which should be born in Obock, on the northern coast of Djibouti, will be at a distance of 7700 km from Beijing and will be the first naval installation outside the national borders. The initiative demonstrates how China is gradually wearing the shoes of the great power as its strategic vision is evolving toward a future in which it will exercise its global leadership.

China for many years has been maintaining an international presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and is part of the UN mission against piracy, launched in 2008. Since then, the Chinese warships docked in the ports of Djibouti over 50 times and the new installation would respond, in the first instance, the objective of ensuring a more organized berth and supply point. But China’s interests go far beyond the anti-piracy operations. Today, the new base could serve as the main joint in the chain of logistical support for peacekeeping operations under the UN flag in Africa. Tomorrow, it could become a bridgehead for any Chinese intervention in the continent, in defense of its national strategic interests. Meanwhile, it will strengthen the Chinese influence on the Indian Ocean, allowing Beijing to organize missions of maritime patrol aircraft directly from the African coast.

Over the past few years, China’s activism abroad mainly concerned the creation of civil and commercial infrastructures, on the basis of bilateral cooperation and development agreements. The military component has always existed, but has long remained concealed. Today this approach is changing and Beijing is increasingly determined to publicize the deployment of its fleet beyond the domestic sea, proving less reticence to openly take on an international role, even militarily.

The naval base in Djibouti will not be a simple supply landing, but will offer Chinese navy extensive logistical capabilities. With it, it will increase the Chinese presence on the ground, it will be possible to operate, presumably, a complete maintenance of ships, will be increased the ability to transport and storage ammunition and spare parts, will be built facilities for the crews and infrastructure for the aeronautics.

The Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean does not depend, of course, only on the future of Djibouti. Chinese ships arrive regularly in many ports scattered between Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman, Yemen and Seychelles and, for the foreseeable future, Beijing is considering whether to make new agreements with Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia to further strengthen and differentiate its logistic options. To create integrated logistics hub for the Navy, in these countries, won’t be easy, however, for reasons which are, from time to time, political, of security or related to excessive competition.

Beyond the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, the Beijing’s navy has extended the range of its raids in the last years, visiting the United States and several European countries, Africa and Latin America. The Chinese ships have passed through the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal and have doubled Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, then to go into the Black Sea, the North Sea and the Bering. While the naval mission reached the limits of the navigable waters of the globe, it increases the need for more reliable landings for refueling and logistics. A requirement to become increasingly important in the coming years.

For now, the Chinese navy continues to rely heavily on support ships, to operate supplies on the high seas when needed or to replenish stocks of weapons and other materials. In this field, Chinese investments have increased massively, and  this year the navy has launched two new vessels Type 903A, for refueling at sea. It was also launched the construction of the new Type 901 in Guangzhou shipyards. The ship, once completed, will be capable of transporting 45,000 tons, a value never achieved before.

Compared to the United States, China is still in its first steps towards the realization of a global logistics network for its navy. American supremacy is not only based on the number of ships, but also about the wide availability of friendly ports in which to dock for refueling and maintenance works. China, to continue to grow on the seas and cement his new status as a global power, will have to concentrate its efforts in the strengthening of supply capacity at sea and in the progressive realization of a network of safe moorings.

The sea, for Beijing, is still too large.

 

Luca Marchesini

 

Luca Marchesini
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