JNN 09 Dec 2015 BEIJING — China announced that it would establish its first overseas military outpost and unveiled a sweeping plan to reorganize its military into a more agile force capable of projecting power abroad. The future Chinese installation will be near a US airbase reportedly used for the Pentagon’s drone operations.
The outpost, in the East African nation of Djibouti, breaks with Beijing’s longstanding policy against emulating the United States in building military facilities abroad.
Beijing is currently in talks with Djibouti’s government to build a naval facility to support the Chinese Navy’s counter-piracy and peacekeeping missions in the region, China’s top officials told media. They carefully avoided calling the installation a “military base” similar to those maintained by the US worldwide.
Spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry Hong Lei says the “support facilities” will provide “logistical support” to fuel, rest and re-supply Chinese Navy ships, addressing possible speculations the port will boost Beijing’s military expansion in the strategically vital Horn of Africa.
“The construction of the relevant facilities will help China’s navy and army further participate in UN peacekeeping operations, carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance,” he told a daily news briefing on Wednesday, Reuters reports.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian also spoke at a monthly news conference, mainly repeating the Foreign Ministry’s comments, but he added an important detail: “China wanted to play a greater role in ensuring regional peace and stability.”
Together with the plan for new command systems to integrate and rebalance the armed forces, the two announcements highlight the breadth of change that Mr. Xi is pushing on the People’s Liberation Army, which for decades has served primarily as a lumbering guardian of Communist Party rule.
Mr. Xi told senior military officers this week that he wanted to “build a robust national defense and a strong military that corresponds to our country’s international stature, and is adapted to our national security and developmental interests,” the Xinhua news agency reported.
A presence in Djibouti would be China’s first overseas logistics facility to service its military vessels since the Communists took power, said David Finkelstein, director of China studies at CNA, an independent research institute in Arlington, Va.
“In the grand sweep of post-1949 Chinese history, this announcement is yet another indicator that Chinese policy is trying to catch up with national interests that have expanded faster than the capacity of the People’s Republic of China to service them,” Mr. Finkelstein said.
The new facility would enable the navy to live up to a strategy laid down this year by the Communist Party in a major defense document, known as a white paper, that outlined its ambitions to become a global maritime power.
China has invested heavily in Djibouti’s infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars spent upgrading the country’s undersize port. It has also financed a railroad extending from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Djibouti, a project that cost billions of dollars. The country has a population of about 900,000, many of whom live in poverty.
Strategically, Djibouti offers an excellent place from which to protect oil imports from the Middle East that traverse the Indian Ocean on their way to China, military experts say. From Djibouti, China gains greater access to the Arabian Peninsula.
The news on Thursday of broad changes to the Chinese military signaled a major step forward in Mr. Xi’s program to shift its focus from traditional land armies to a more flexible, cohesive set of forces. China’s military planning and spending have increasingly focused on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and in waters near Japan.
Mr. Xi told a gathering of more than 200 senior military officers that the planned changes would take years and were essential to ensuring that the People’s Liberation Army could shoulder its increasingly complex and broad responsibilities, the official Xinhua news agency said Thursday.
Enactment of the military reforms would be a political victory for Mr. Xi, who since coming to power in November 2012 has enforced an intense campaign against corruption that took down dozens of senior military officers. They have included two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Gens. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.
Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, who has argued that China should develop bases commensurate with its growing military power, said on Thursday that in doing so, China would only be doing what America had done.
“The United States has been expanding its business all around the world and sending its military away to protect those interests for 150 years,” Mr. Shen said. “Now, what the United States has done in the past, China will do again.”
Mr. Shen, who referred to the planned facility in Djibouti as a “base,” said it was necessary because “we need to safeguard our own navigational freedom.”
He added, “If whoever — pirates, ISIS or the U.S. — wants to shut down the passage, we need to be able to reopen it.”
The head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, said in Washington last week that China planned “to build a base in Djibouti” and had reached a 10-year agreement with the country’s government to do so. He said the installation would serve as a logistics hub and would enable the Chinese to “extend their reach.”
The United States military has praised China’s participation in the international antipiracy operations, which protect vital commercial shipping in a volatile part of the world.
But some American military experts, concerned about Beijing’s growing military capacity, have expressed unease about China having a land facility in Djibouti so close to Camp Lemonnier, a major American base where 4,000 service members, including Special Forces, and civilians train and carry out counterterrorism operations.
Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, offered few details about the Djibouti facility, but said it would provide Chinese ships with reliable supplies and enable crews to rest. “These facilities will help Chinese vessels to better carry out Chinese missions like escort and humanitarian operations,” he said.
Such statements suggest a far more modest facility than the sprawling American base at Camp Lemonnier. Washington announced in 2013 that $1.4 billion would be spent on expanding the base, from which drone operations over Somalia and Yemen are conducted.
France also maintains a base in Djibouti, which is a former French colony. Japan, which also participates in the United Nations antipiracy operations, keeps surveillance aircraft and several hundred personnel there.