The Chinese People’s Liberation Army attends the opening ceremony of China’s military base in Djibouti — its first overseas naval base — in August 2017. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Washington’s interests on the African continent are poorly defined. This lack of strategic attention is illustrated by the Pentagon’s publication of regional strategies for Europe and Asia but not Africa and the lack of inter-agency initiatives to coordinate policymaking toward Africa. As the US spent the last two decades focusing on the Middle East, it failed to define its interests on the African continent beyond counterterrorism and combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In contrast, China has undertaken a deliberate strategy of military, economic and diplomatic investment on the continent. The integration of these three domains is a cornerstone of Chinese strategy in the region and allows Beijing to project power while maintaining a guise of non-interference.[i]In a relatively short period of time, China has cemented its influence in Africa and established its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. The construction of China’s Djiboutian base shows that America’s failure to identify and pursue key objectives in Africa comprehensively will not be met with idleness by adversaries.
Chinese engagement in Africa threatens US interests. In particular, China’s proximity to Camp Lemonnier poses a possible future obstacle to US security and economic interests in Africa. China’s new base is located a mere six miles from the Camp, which serves as the primary base of operations for US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and is used as an area for American intelligence and counterterrorism operations on the African continent and beyond.[ii] The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy claims that the facility will only provide humanitarian relief, support Chinese peacekeeping in Africa, assist anti-piracy missions, and maintain stability in the region.[iii] However, satellite images show the base is undergoing the construction of a new pier that will allow it to host an aircraft carrier and could also serve as a logistical resupply hub for larger warships and nuclear-powered submarines.[iv] These developments indicate that China’s base is moving beyond its logistics role.
China’s base also creates complications in the surrounding waters when coupled with China’s nearby ships in the Indian Ocean. These ships could thwart the U.S. Fifth Naval Fleet’s operations near the Horn of Africa and reduce its ability to respond quickly to U.S. allies in East Asia.[v] In this way, China’s base marks a significant step toward establishing a global military presence that can both protect Chinese shipping and extend the navy’s reach. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded last year that China’s goal of projecting power away from its shores is developing at a consistent pace, highlighting that in the next 10-15 years, the Chinese army may be “capable of fighting a limited war overseas to protect its interests in countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”[vi] Beijing’s naval facility in Djibouti will allow the Chinese to develop this experience in far seas operations and evaluate new naval platforms and expeditionary capabilities.
Additionally, Chinese economic investment outpaces the United States and threatens U.S. primacy as a trading partner to the continent. China has become one of Africa’s top trading partners in the last decade-– in part by capitalizing on a lack of US focus on the region. Africa is now a critical component of the BRI, which aims to bring Chinese firms to Africa for investment in infrastructure projects, like ports and railways. The end goal is building countries into commerce and logistics hubs who are aligned with China. Emblematic of its evolving commercial ties, China regularly partakes in counterpiracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
Lastly, Chinese diplomatic engagement has ramped up, threatening the U.S.’ status as the go-to diplomatic partner on the continent. According to the Lowy Institutes Global Diplomacy Index, Chinese embassies in Africa now outnumber U.S. embassies.[vii] China’s engagement in Djibouti is representative of its shift toward a more meticulous foreign policy.[viii] Since 2006, China began hosting the Forums for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), an international conference to discuss issues on security, defense, anti-piracy, and peacekeeping issues. These diplomatic engagements have also provided a venue for China to tout its military and economic investments across Africa. In the two most recent FOCAC conferences, Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in investment to the continent and $100 million in military aid.[ix] These figures greatly surpass U.S. funding and make China appear to be the stronger diplomatic and economic partner to the continent.
The US must define its interests in Africa to keep up with China’s growing influence. Washington can no longer assume military, economic, and diplomatic primacy in Africa. Instead, it now must view it through the prism of strategic competition with China. By downplaying the threat of China’s Djiboutian base and neglecting the geopolitical implications of Beijing’s economic investments on the continent, Washington is on track to cede influence in Africa to China. This threatens the military balance of power in the region, the safety of US allies in Africa, and ultimately US security interests in the continent.
[i] Michael Singh, “China and the United States in the Middle East: Between Dependency and Rivalry,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 10, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/china-and-united-states-middle-east-between-dependency-and-rivalry
[ii] Commander, Navy Installations Command Notification, “Welcome to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti,” CNIC, https://www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/cnreurafcent/installations/camp_lemonnier_djibouti.html
[iii] Ben Blanchard, “China sends troops to open first overseas military base in Djibouti,” Reuters, July 11, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti/china-sends-troops-to-open-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti-idUSKBN19X049
[iv] Tuvia Gering and Heath Sloane, ‘Beijing’s Overseas Military Base in Djibouti,” MEMRI, July 16, 2021, https://www.memri.org/reports/beijings-overseas-military-base-djibouti
[v] US China Security and Economic Commission, “Section 2: China’s growing projection and expeditionary capabilities,” USCC.GOV, December 2020, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Chapter_3_Section_2–Chinas_Growing_Power_Projection_and_Expeditionary_Capabilities.pdf
[ix] Lina Benabdallah and Winslow Robertson, “Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion for Africa. Where will the money go?” Washington Post, September 17, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/17/xi-jinping-pledged-60-billion-for-africa-where-will-the-money-go/