Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P3)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
But from Washington to Taipei, observers suspect that the project is more ambitious than the Chinese let on. In an interview on the national news network Taiwan Today, political analyst Lai Yueqian said, “[The base] can be used to pin down the United States and any U.S.-led organizations, and if [the U.S.] wants to intervene against China’s interests, they will have to think carefully, because China will use their military to protect their citizens and their property.” In the following clip, Yueqian elaborates on this analysis, bespeaking Taiwanese concerns about the base:
Yueqian’s assessment, shared by most Chinese “near-abroad” allies of the United States, is also the view of prominent members of the political class in Washington. At a December hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs in which rumors about the base were discussed, Senator Chris Coons (R-De.) stated in relation to the Djibouti base, “[The US has to be] vigilant in the face of China’s growing ambitions.”
Beijing’s outlook toward nearby North Africa and the Middle East differs with American policies. As Taiwan’s Lai Yueqian described in the video above, the U.S.- and NATO-led military intervention in Libya angered China. At the U.N. Security Council, Beijing subsequently blocked attempts to engineer a Western military intervention in Syria. With respect to the region-wide conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, America’s tradition of siding with Saudi Arabia — or, for that matter, its more recent tendency to tilt toward Iran — may conflict with Chinese policies: Guided by the need to quench its substantial thirst for oil, Beijing mostly seeks to avoid irking either oil-rich nation. A new military base in boating range of North Africa as well as the Arabian peninsula promises to bolster any Chinese political stance—however modestly—with a measure of force. The base, to be located near the small port city of Obock on the northern coast of Djibouti, lies 20 miles closer than Lemonnier to the conflict in Yemen, to which Washington has committed resources in support of Saudi Arabia’s war with the Houthis.
But China’s strategic goals cannot be explained solely in terms of a perceived reaction to Western policies. According to Beijing’s most recent defense policy paper, released in May 2015, “China’s armed forces will work harder to create a favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means.” This formulation is widely believed to allude to China’s “String of Pearls” and “One Belt, One Road” initiatives. “String of Pearls” is a metaphor for an envisioned network of naval ports of call, predominantly along the Indian Ocean, to secure sea lanes of transit, commerce, and communication from mainland China to Sudan. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative seeks to strengthen Chinese exports through commercial land and sea roads, largely along the historic “silk road,” straddling Europe and the Middle East. The Djibouti base would be vital in ensuring the success of the latter goal, since most of China’s $1 billion in daily exports to Europe traverse the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. With respect to the former plan, Toshi Yoshihara, Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, has been mapping the intersection of Chinese naval and commercial ventures across the Pacific region. Arrayed together, he told us, they “certainly do look like a string of pearls.” Djibouti, home to both the nascent base and extensive Chinese economic investment, would clearly amount to a new pearl on the string (see Figure 1).