Image: Natalie Wu
By John Park
China’s military and economic activity in East Africa display capabilities of a great power but also suggest greater ambitions for hegemony. When China opened its first military base in Djibouti, this was a significant shift from decades of noninterventionist Chinese foreign policy established by Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy.” Djibouti’s location makes it a valuable strategic and political asset. Not only is the Horn of Africa a significant maritime chokepoint, the symbolic value of China building its base far from home and just miles from those of other great powers such as the United States, France, and Japan adds to Xi’s personal credibility among the populace and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has proven to have wider non-economic consequences. In Djibouti and several other countries, China was able to leverage debt from BRI projects to acquire favorable long-term assets such as ports, from the governments of debt-heavy countries as equity. The shift in Chinese foreign policy towards more expansionist and nationalistic goals, Djibouti’s strategic and political value, and China’s use of debt to gain geopolitical advantages indicate that China is likely to expand in other strategic locations of the world where it has the leverage to achieve greater influence. By doing so, Xi is bringing about a great “rejuvenation” to his country and restoring China’s imperial status that Western powers destroyed more than a century ago.
Xi Jinping is markedly different from his predecessors on many levels but nowhere is the divergence clearer than in China’s revised foreign policy. Under Deng Xiaoping, China adopted a set of principles to better protect its national interest in what is known as the “24-Character Strategy.” Roughly translated, it states that China should “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” Deng believed that China’s strength was insufficient, and the country needed to focus on its own development. His successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both continued this policy under each of their presidencies and oversaw “China’s peaceful rise” – focusing on economic integration and growth. A Chinese defense white paper stated in 2000 that “China does not seek military expansion, nor does it station troops or set up military bases in any foreign country.” In 2010, China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) stated that claims that China “will establish bases overseas” are groundless. A Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report cites an article from the Study Times, a newspaper of the CCP’s Party School, that shows how Chinese perceptions of overseas military bases have often been equated with “American ‘hegemony’” and neo-colonialism.
However, under Xi, significant foreign policy changes have followed dramatic domestic ones. After his ascent to power, Xi outlined a much more nationalistic and expansive Chinese foreign policy. A 2015 Chinese defense white paper introduced a new strategy of “near seas defense” and “far seas protection” which expressed China’s goal to become a blue-water navy as well as expanding its responsibilities abroad. Xi also declared in the 19th Party Congress that after the “Century of Humiliation,” there is a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” where “socialism with Chinese characteristics has ushered in a new era.” Mention of the BRI and the creation of “a world-class army by 2050” outlined specific goals that support China’s rise to great power status. This triumphant announcement of Chinese strength, of course, departs from decades of a low-profile strategy. Although China maintains a general principle of noninterference, it simultaneously searches for opportunities to put its grandiose vision into practice. Increasingly aggressive measures to secure the South China Sea for its national interest may be cited as one such example. However, this makes proximate sense for a rising power out to prove itself and can be explained as a matter of Chinese sovereignty in many ways. Building a military installation far from its backyard in the Horn of Africa, however, is different.
China’s military base in Djibouti offers strategic and political value in addition to securing its commercial interests. The strategic value is clear: situated between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti acts as a maritime chokepoint for ships passing between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. China’s naval base would sit beside the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, a maritime traffic route where some 40 percent of Chinese imports passes through. In addition, the base would protect over a billion dollars’ worth of investments made in Djibouti. China has invested 1.34 billion dollars so far into infrastructure projects to build the Port of Doraleh, a railway linking Djibouti and Ethiopia, a water pipeline, and other commercial projects. For reference, Djibouti has a GDP of about 1.76 billion dollars. The base is also politically valuable for Xi at home. For one, a Chinese military presence shows that China is capable of protecting its interests along the BRI’s sea-based part known as the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and follows through on Xi’s ambitions for China to become a great power. It also has the symbolic value of joining other great powers with bases in Djibouti such as the United States, France, Japan, and others. It confirms as much that China is not only able to aggressively secure the South China Sea but also a strategic chokepoint thousands of miles from home. Located just miles from the United States’ Camp Lemonnier and the Port of Doraleh, China’s base is the first connection point in the MSR which connects Asia, Africa, and Europe. In addition to the military installation, Doraleh Multipurpose Port is a significant asset for China since the port is an exchange point for incoming Chinese goods and outgoing natural resources. However, it has been reported that at least one of the port berths have been entirely dedicated for use by the Chinese navy. Instances like this display how the BRI – an infrastructure program – has effects that are not limited to economic or commercial gains.
Debt has played a significant role in helping China acquire both soft and hard power assets through economic pressure. In a Harvard study examining China’s use of debt to achieve strategic aims – dubbed “debtbook diplomacy” – Djibouti is among several examined cases where poor but geostrategic countries ceded key ports or military bases to China in return for debt forgiveness. China’s acquiring of the Port of Doraleh was significantly aided by the fact that Djibouti incurred millions of dollars in debt because it used Chinese loans to help pay for the infrastructure project. The CNA reported that, “Most of the capital that China provides to Djibouti is in the form of loans from the Export-Import Bank of China (China Eximbank)…. China Eximbank is a wholly state owned institution…” and “the bank generally requires borrowers to buy goods and services from China.” In this case, the loan made out to fund the building of the Doraleh Port was 340 million dollars, or 20 percent of Djibouti’s GDP. Just four years after China’s initial “commercial” reasons for lending Djibouti credit, it leveraged the Doraleh Port and military base. While the BRI is not intentionally coercive, neither is it strictly an investment tool for China with only economic effects. It is difficulto ignore the possibility of a future trend among the sixteen cases where BRI loans have trapped poor countries in debt – several of which have already been pressured into yielding geopolitically valuable assets to China.
With the national desire for glory driving Chinese foreign policy, China’s military installation in Djibouti is not only valuable to Xi at home but it represents the model for which China could pursue its global ambitions base by base. Because Chinese foreign policy depends on the mandate set by the CCP (and, when he exists, the paramount leader), the intention of China’s activities in Djibouti or the South China Sea or anywhere else all serve to maintain the status quo power structure. For Xi, the pursuit of an aggressive Chinese foreign policy helps build legitimacy to his one-man rule at home. While consolidating power means Xi gets to decide how things will be, it also means no one else is as responsible for the national interest than he is. Consequently, no one feels more pressured than Xi for China to appear strong and successful. As a result, Djibouti is not likely to be an isolated experiment. China has the means and motivation to build other military bases as well. Even while China presently denies that it is building other military bases – like it did recently when reports surfaced that it was looking into Afghanistan – whether these denials are true or not, China has dismissed reports of overseas military bases before and reversed its decision later. The CNA has indicated that there is “already evidence that China continues to consider establishing additional military support facilities abroad.” Citing an article in the official journal of the CCP Party School, Xi reportedly instructed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to “steadily advance overseas base construction.” Before choosing Djibouti, China’s Naval Research Institute identified seven possible locations in 2014 for the establishment of a military base: Bay of Bengal; Sittwe, Pakistan; Gwadar, Pakistan; Djibouti; Seychelles; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While it is unknown where or when China will build its next base, the CNA identified five factors that China’s base in Djibouti will serve as a guide for – further supporting the likelihood that Djibouti is the first of many bases to come.
In all, China’s nationalistic foreign policy per “great rejuvenation”, the successful establishment of China’s first military base in Djibouti, and the alarming number of debt-vulnerable geostrategic countries beholden to China indicate that Djibouti is likely to serve as a model for future military bases and confirm as much China’s global ambitions. China’s expansion should not be dismissed as simply growing pains for a rising power. Rather, the case of Djibouti and whichever country comes next should be considered as part of a grand and truly impressive desire to achieve hegemony of past. In Graham Allison’s Destined for War, Allison cites a quote by Lee Kuan Yew as someone who truly understood China, stating: “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”