An ominous new threat has emerged from one of China’s schemes, with the superpower making moves that could have huge implications.
A recently completed pier at the Chinese naval base near the Indian Ocean is large enough to support an aircraft carrier, the top US commander for Africa says. And that could leave Australia’s defences wrong-footed.
US commander for the African region General Stephen Townsend told the House Armed Services Committee this week that the military facility was undergoing significant expansion.
He also noted it was alongside the Chinese funded civilian deepwater port of Doraleh, paid for under Beijing’s controversial “Belt and Road” international investment scheme.
“Their first overseas military base, their only one, is in Africa, and they have just expanded that by adding a significant pier that can even support their aircraft carriers in the future,” General Townsend said.
The outpost became operational in 2017 as part of Beijing’s stated desire to contribute towards humanitarian relief efforts and United Nations anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
It has since expanded to become a significant supply hub supporting sizeable naval expeditionary forces.
The new 330m-long pier can accommodate two of China’s biggest ships, including Type-075 amphibious assault ships and the aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong. Recent satellite photographs work has begun on dredging a possible second pier close to the first.
This would significantly expand the number of ships the base could service at any given time.
Djibouti is a tiny North African nation occupying one side of the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait. This links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. It’s a significant choke-point for the vital shipping route running from Europe, through the Suez Canal, to the Indian Ocean.
The US, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and Saudi Arabia also have military outposts within the 23,000sq km nation. Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US base in Africa (though there are some 28 other outposts), is just 10km from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facility. In recent years, pilots landing there have complained of lasers being flashed into their cockpits from the port.
In 2017, China’s Ministry of Defence declared the Djibouti facility was “for the purpose of better undertaking its international responsibilities and obligations and better protecting its lawful interests, instead of seeking military expansion.”
Those benevolent intentions appear to have been forgotten.
The outpost is heavily defended for an overseas humanitarian support facility. It is fortified with steep embankments, double walls and watchtowers. A heliport capable of operating some 24 helicopters is positioned at its heart. There are 10 large multistorey buildings likely to be barracks and accommodation set alongside a substantial administrative complex.
Washington-based think-tank the Jamestown Foundation warned in 2017 that the outpost “presents a risk for US military and intelligence operations in the region, and requires greater vigilance on the part of the US intelligence and national security community.”
General Townsend this week agreed, saying the base was now a “platform to project power across the continent and its waters.”
It also is a taste of things to come.
“Around the continent, they are looking for other basing opportunities,” he told the committee.
“China is of great concern. They are literally everywhere on the continent. They are placing a lot of bets down. They are spending a lot of money. They built a lot of critical infrastructure.”
Australia’s second front
The “Belt” in Beijing’s “Belt and Road” international investment strategy is an extensive array of ports extending from Africa to mainland China.
Djibouti is just one part.
Beijing is working to establish naval and commercial outposts in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It has also sought to establish its influence over small island states in the region, such as Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles.
This would increase its ability to control choke points such as the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca – and possibly even the Cape of Good Hope.
All are strategically significant to Australia.
But Canberra’s strategic influence campaign is focused on winning “hearts and minds” in the South Pacific. Not the Indian Ocean.
“In recent years – and for good reason – the strategic commentariat in both Australia and India has become increasingly concerned with the rise of China’s maritime power and the potential threat that this development poses for both nations,” a Lowy Institute article authored by James Goldrick and Sudarshan Shrikhande reads.
They note Australia is reliant on Indian Ocean shipping for aviation fuel – something its dwindling number of onshore refineries can no longer produce. And that’s just one example of many.
“China would be very interested in continuing to ‘use’ most if not all the Indian Ocean for its trade, and especially its energy flows. So would India and Australia,” they write. “Were a conflict to take place between China and India (or Australia, for that matter), ‘strategies of denial’ would, in fact, be part of a multidimensional fight to compete for sea control.
“Thus, to deter a conflict from escalating into a larger one – and to fight effectively if events moved to a shooting war – a ‘balanced force’ is vital.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel