In May 2015, it was reported that China was going to establish a naval base in the East African nation of Djibouti. In that past, there has been much talk about Chinese overseas bases, but the Chinese official response to this news suggest the base is likely to be more than a rumor. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not deny the report but instead stated that “Regional peace and stability serves the interests of all countries and meets the aspirations shared by China, Djibouti and other countries around the world. The Chinese side is ready and obliged to make more contributions to that end.” Likewise, the Chinese Defense Ministry also expressed China’s willingness to “make even more contributions” to peace and stability of the region. More directly, the official Xinhua News Agency has argued that time is ripe for a base in Djibouti. The talk of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti seems to confirm a 2014 report from Washington predicting the establishment of Chinese “dual-use” bases in the Indian Ocean serving both commercial and security functions. All of this brings to mind three questions: First, why would China choose to increase its Indian Ocean presence? Second, what is the strategic environment in which China has to operate? And third, what are the strategic implications for Sino-U.S. strategic interactions and China’s maritime strategy?
China has widespread economic investments in Africa, and a large portion of their trade plies the waters off the eastern coast of Africa.
It makes sense for them to operate the PLA Navy in those waters. Interestingly, they’re generally considered to be pretty competent partners in maritime security in the region, as opposed to their often heavy handed techniques in disputed waters closer to home.
The explosive growth of the Chinese economy since implementing economic reforms in the 1980s has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic boom in history. The Chinese government recognizes that its internal stability is contingent on its continued economic well being. The threat of disruption of trade, the engine of its growth, is sufficient that the idea of operations overseas is more appealing than concerns about foreign entanglements, which China has strongly opposed for years.
One is tempted to paint the current China with the same Cold War brush of an expansionist communist Soviet Union. In fact, China has been mostly focused on internal security. Even the most cursory study of Chinese history over the last couple centuries sees a nation that has been occupied time and again by external powers. It also shows a nation that can be extremely vulnerable to maritime interdiction. Understanding that goes a long way to explaining the growth of the Chinese fleet, and their strategy both in the nearby waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and further offshore, such as in the Indian Ocean.
Knowing how and why China does what it does gives us a better chance to prevent forcing China into becoming a foe, rather than a competitor.