Ships carrying Chinese military personnel for Beijing’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, have left China to begin setting up the facility as China’s rapidly modernising military hones its global reach.
Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fuelled worries in India that it would become another of China’s “string of pearls” of military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
China began construction of a logistics base in strategically located Djibouti last year that will resupply naval vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, in particular.
This will be China’s first overseas naval base, although Beijing officially describes it as a logistics facility.
State news agency Xinhua said in a short report late on Tuesday the ships had departed from Zhanjiang in southern China “to set up a support base in Djibouti”.
Navy commander Shen Jinlong “read an order on constructing the base in Djibouti” but the report did not say when the base might formally begin operations.
Xinhua said the establishment of the base was a decision made by both countries after “friendly negotiations, and accords with the common interest of the people from both sides”.
“The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia,” it said.
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“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,” the Xinhua report.
The People’s Liberation Army Daily said in a front-page commentary this was a landmark move that would increase China’s ability to ensure global peace, especially because it has so many United Nations peacekeepers in Africa and is so involved in anti-piracy patrols.
China would not seek military expansionism or get into arms races no matter what happened, it said.
“These promises will not change because of the construction of the overseas logistics base,” it said.
The state-run Global Times said in an editorial on Wednesday there could be no mistake that this was in fact a military base.
“Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point. It makes sense there is attention on this from foreign public opinion,” said the paper, which is published by the official People’s Daily, said.
However, China’s military development was about protecting its own security, it said. “It’s not about seeking to control the world.”
Djibouti, which is about the size of Wales, is located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal. The tiny, barren nation sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also hosts US, Japanese and French bases.
There has been persistent speculation in diplomatic circles that China would build other such bases, in Pakistan for example, but the government has dismissed this.