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China’s military expansion – what right does Washington have to be worried?

China's military expansion - what right does Washington have to be worried?

In August 2017, two Chinese warships carrying an unidentified number of military personnel berthed on the coast of the East African nation of Djibouti, signaling the first Chinese military base outside of the South China Sea. This commitment enhances the country’s military presence in Africa, as over 3,000 troops have been stationed in Mali, Liberia and South Sudan for peacekeeping missions in the last few years.

According to Beijing, the purpose of the site is to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to China’s new-found allies within the region, as well as a logistics facility. These assertions are somewhat legitimate, considering the Chinese navy have undertaken surveillance missions in the region since 2008, along with the aforementioned humanitarian presence in other parts of Africa. Additionally, over one million Chinese nationals are based in Africa, therefore one could argue their presence has some justification.

Could any underlying motivations exist behind China’s recent military expansion in the region? Djibouti is a country with little natural resources, unlike their Gulf neighbours. The largely benevolent motives in China’s surely cannot be the only reason for its interest.

Primarily, it could be its geographic location – Djibouti meets the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Suez Canal where about eight percent of global sea-borne trade passes through at any given moment.

China’s presence in Djibouti is not unique. Its joined other countries in the region – it used to be a colony of France and a group of French personnel remain today. Its also not surprising to have a military presence from China, considering they have contributed to peacekeeping missions in the African region.

They are joined by contingents from Japan, Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia and, not surprisingly, the US, who took charge of a large outpost formerly held by France, in response to the September 11 attacks. With a number of significant tenants in this territory, this could be seen as another factor in its decision making. Perhaps they’re consolidating power in a region where others exist?

Beijing can also be perceived to be protecting their investments in the region. Chinese military presence, and the $20 million per year over 10 years Djibouti will receive from the move, isn’t the only benefit they receive. Firms from the country have invested heavily in the east African nation include a multimillion-dollar free trade zone, a water pipeline from Ethiopia, a railway to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and a new international airport.

Djibouti’s neighbour, Ethiopia, have also benefitted from China’s presence. Between 2012 and 2017, 279 companies were operating in the country, with projects worth over $570 million. The necessity for security in the region is therefore perhaps a legitimate claim, as China has had to evacuate hundreds of nationals from Libya, Yemen and Sudan in the last few years.

Concern has been raised over the influence this gives to Beijing, none more so than from the US. Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa claimed, “If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant.” He added, “there are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities specifically on the eastern coast … So Djibouti happens to be the first – there will be more.” Sure, the unease from the US can be considered somewhat warranted.

One could argue Washington is in a position to comment on such actions, as they hold a considerable amount of experience on handling diplomatic issues in varied regions. It begs the question however – do they really have the right to have such sensitive geopolitical affairs?

US overseas military expansionism has been taking place since the Spanish-American war in the late nineteenth century, and along with it came the damage to communities around the world. If the US have anything negative or concerning to claim about Beijing’s military ambitions, perhaps it should take a look in the figurative mirror before passing judgement.

One country that could possess a more legitimate concern for the recent actions of China in Djibouti is India, with their concern stemming form the One Belt One Road initiative. The enterprising infrastructure project draws its inspiration from the Silk Road trading route, and intends to connect China with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa, with 40% of GDP in the process.

The concern from Delhi has been one of sovereignty – Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar stated in 2017, “China is very sensitive about its sovereignty. The economic corridor passes through an illegal territory, an area that we call Pak-occupied Kashmir. You can imagine India’s reaction at the fact that such a project has been initiated without consulting us.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi reinforced this point, asserting that “connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations.” India’s seems to have a stronger case for worry, as they have a history of conflict with the East Asian giants.



Fred Johnston

With previous studies in politics and international relations, Fred is a social commentator who covers the social injustices carried out by those who have misplaced their moral compass – usually politicians and big business.
A Central Australian who works as a schoolteacher in Bogota, Colombia by day and aspiring social commentator by night, Fred´s work has been featured in a number of blogs including Centrethought, Young Diplomats Society and the Big Smoke.
He hopes his efforts to address the ails of society will lead to a career in diplomacy or social commentary.