Chinese Maritime Expansion: From Yellow Sea to Red Sea

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue 1 March - April 2016
Page No.: 
Vijay Sakhuja
Thursday, March 10, 2016

A report of the Center for Contemporary China issued on 26th February 2016 stated that “China has started building a naval port in Djibouti – its first military supply depot in Africa – as the People’s Liberation Army tries to expand its international presence and security influence”. Located at Doraleh in South Djibouti, the Chinese facility, according to the Report,  “ will be watching one of the world’s busiest waterways through the Suez Canal and supporting the PLA Navy’s operations in the Indian Ocean”.

Wu Qian, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman also confirmed at a media briefing in late February 2016 that  “The construction of infrastructure and facilities has begun”, adding that “ we have sent some people to work on that”.

Earlier, in December 2015, the Djiboutian foreign minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, while confirming that “negotiations have come to an end and the naval base will be built in Djibouti” emphasized that “the goal of the base is to fight against pirates” and “most of all to secure the Chinese ships using this very important strait that is important to all the countries in the world.”

REUTERS reported on 20 Jan 2016 of Djibouti’s three time President, Ismael Omar Guelleh having signed Agreements with China to set up a Trade Zone and establish a legal framework to let Chinese banks operate in Djibouti and to expand “Djibouti’s role for transhipment of goods in trade between China and the rest of the world”.

A Naval Hub

Djibouti, erstwhile French Colony of French Somaliland since the late 19th century,  was subsequently renamed to the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas and attained Independence in 1977.   By virtue of its strategic location at the mouth of the Bab el Mandeb gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, Djibouti already hosts foreign military bases.  The United States has a Naval Expeditionary base at Camp Lemonier at the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport.   Japan too has a local naval base to assist in marine defense as have the French have their largest African Military base there.  Its locational significance came to fore when in recent times, naval forces particularly from the United States, European Union, NATO and others transited through the Red Sea for deployments during the Gulf War (1991), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001), Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), and the ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan-Pakistan and counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden-off Somalia.

The United States uses its military facilities at Camp Lemonier for counterterrorism operations in Africa and the Middle East and drone operations over Somalia and Yemen. In 2013, the US announced plans to spend $1.4 billion to expand the base and in 2014, President Obama renewed the lease of the base for 20 more years. The US hosts the largest number of military personnel (4000) and the Camp is also home to Special Forces operatives from the US Joint Special Operations Command.

Likewise, France has major military interests in Djibouti and it has set up a base with over 2,000 service personnel. The French Air Force operates Mirage fighter jets from the base. It is useful to mention that Djibouti was a former French colony.

Japan had in fact been the first Asian country to seek access to Djibouti for setting up military facilities to support counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In 2009, it deployed 600 personnel of the Maritime Self Defence Force (MSDF) and nearly one third of these are stationed at a base near the main international airport in the capital of Djibouti. Apparently, they receive generous support from U.S. military base at Camp Lemonier and Djibouti gets $30 million in annual revenue from the Japanese government.

It is however the rising presence of China that is of significance and concern.  China has invested heavily in developing infrastructure in Djibouti including upgradation of the port facilities at a cost of $400 million and has financed a railroad linking Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and Djibouti at a cost of nearly $3-billion.

Impact of China-Djibouti Developments

For the last few years, there had been several reports about the growing Chinese interest in seeking port access in east coat of Africa as a logistic support facility for the PLA Navy’s counter piracy and non-combat evacuation operations in the Gulf of Aden. It was also interested in Djibouti for its counter terrorism operations in the Arabian Peninsula against the ISIS. In this context, five issues merit analysis.

First, it is believed that the Chinese military facilities in Djibouti may overshadow the size of the US military installations which may prompt Washington “to relocate sensitive intelligence-gathering operations to more secure locations outside Djibouti where they are better protected from interception by the Chinese”. According to a US official, “trade deal between Djibouti and China has raised serious security concerns with regard to Camp Lemonier. There are fears that if President Guelleh gets too close to China then he may be tempted to impose restrictions on US access to the base, which would seriously affect the West’s attempts to collect intelligence on Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Qaeda.” Further, US journal Foreign Affairs wrote that “Washington would need to band together with other allies such as France, Germany and Japan to try and counter China’s growing influence in Djibouti.” “If it doesn’t, Washington might find that the country hosting its only military base in sub-Saharan Africa owes more favors to China, its rising global rival, than to the United States itself.”

Second, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, “These facilities will help Chinese vessels to better carry out Chinese missions like escort and humanitarian operations,” and a Chinese scholar has argued that Djibouti is important for the China because ‘we need to safeguard our own navigational freedom…If whoever-pirates, ISIS or the U.S.- wants to shut down the passage, we need to be able to reopen it’. This reinforces fears that China has adopted an aggressive posturing with regard to the Indian Ocean. 

Since 2008, China has dispatched 22 escort missions to the Gulf of Aden for counter piracy operations. Interestingly, these forces have conducted a variety of other operations too:

(a) Russian and Chinese naval vessels operated together in support of 2013 UN Security Council resolution and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) request to escort Danish and Norwegian vessels carrying chemical weapons out of Syria;

(b) The PLA Navy successfully evacuated 35,800 Chinese workers from Libya in 2011 and more recently in April 2015, the evacuation of 900 people including Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen;

(c)   Two Chinese ships belonging to the 19th task force and six Russian ships from the Black Sea fleet conducted Mediterranean Sea Cooperation-2015 exercises to enhance naval interoperability and to “jointly deal with maritime security threats”;

(d) Chinese naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea is also meant to support its  commercial interests in the port of Sevastopol. A Chinese company Beijing Interoceanic Canal Investment Management (BICIM) had drawn plans to develop a port-cum-special economic zone in Sevastopol. However, the plans were frozen after the Ukrainian crisis unfolded and Russia took control of Crimea’; and

(e) The PLA Navy took the opportunity to participate in naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and probe NATO’s backyard. These developments showcase the expanding operational geography of the PLA Navy from the Yellow Sea through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean Sea.

Third, Djibouti fits well into the Chinese Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative which crosses the India Ocean through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean Sea. One of the significant features of the MSR is the development of maritime infrastructure along the route. Today China has the capacity to build maritime infrastructure at home and overseas. The construction of the Gawadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, plans to develop the Sonadia port in Bangladesh, develop the Kra Canal Project in Thailand, and Jask port in Iran are now being leveraged by China to develop maritime infrastructure in friendly countries who are more than willing to accept the offer. In 2014, Russia offered China to develop a $ 1.2-3 billion transport corridor to Crimea across the Kerch Strait which would make China the first investor in Crimea after it became part of Russia. China also has interest in the two container terminals in port of Piraeus in Greece where the Chinese shipping conglomerate COSCO has made a bid to operate these.

Fourth, China is not deterred by losing out on access arrangements for the PLA Navy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Colombo was under great pressure from New Delhi after the former allowed the docking of Chinese conventional submarine and it was forced to reconsider future docking of such vessels in its ports. It can now access Djibouti for replenishing the PLA Navy for long duration deployments in the Indian Ocean besides it can have easy access to Karachi in Pakistan.  

Fifth, and most significantly, China is signaling to the US that it has global interests and access to Djibouti is an expression of its politico-diplomatic and economic strength. Also, it is not deterred by the US rebalance to Asia and that the PLA Navy is capable of operating simultaneously in the eastern and western theatres thereby tiding over the tyranny of geography and its interest now span from the Yellow Sea to the Red Sea.

Implications for India

It is fair to argue that in the future PLA Navy’s deployments in the Indian Ocean will be frequent and in terms of platforms these would involve larger and formidable ships including submarines. It is not implausible to think of situations where the navies would cross paths and in the absence of well defines rules, agreements and understandings on the prevention of maritime and naval incidents such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) and Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), politico-military standoffs can be expected. It becomes necessary to draft regional agreements ‘to avoid contingency’ at sea.