EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Last month, the Chinese established their first-ever military-naval base outside the Asia-Pacific region, in Djibouti. The establishment of the base is an expression of the “Maritime Silk Road” policy intended to exert Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean. The establishment of the Djibouti base also reflects Beijing’s recent celebration of Zheng He, the 15th century admiral, whose voyages in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean have come to symbolize Chinese power and a Chinese-led global order.
On July 11, ships carrying military personnel set sail from the Chinese naval base in Zhanjiang for the Horn of Africa. Their destination was Djibouti, where China has opened its first overseas naval base. According to the Chinese Xinhua news agency, the base is intended to “ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia. The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.” According to the agreement between Beijing and Djibouti, which is valid at least until 2026, the base may contain as many as 10,000 troops.
The establishment of the Djibouti base is an important steppingstone in China’s departure from its traditional focus on the East Asian-Pacific region and an expression of its expanding interests in Africa and the Middle East. It may also be seen as a culmination of Premier Xi Jinping’s “One Road-One Belt” strategy, which seeks to establish land and sea routes across Asia and the Indian Ocean. More specifically, it corresponds with China’s initiative to construct a “Maritime Silk Road” built around “a string of pearls”: a series of Chinese footholds around the Indian Ocean and into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
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