“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.
There has been speculation for years that China might establish a base in Djibouti. Rodriguez said China has signed a 10-year contract with the African nation.
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 Coons (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.
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