Station looks beyond anti-piracy mission
China would not have thought of establishing a logistic supply station in Djibouti were it not for fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia. As the country contributing the largest force to the counter-piracy mission, China has had at least three ships in the Gulf of Aden at any given time since 2009.
So far 65 ships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 22 task forces have been deployed on counter-piracy missions, and they have escorted more than 6,100 ships, half of them foreign vessels.
These achievements have been made under stringent conditions, however. Since the PLA Navy vessels have no supply or maintenance stations overseas, they have to carry huge amounts of food and spare parts, prompting some Chinese Navy personnel to say the spare parts are more than enough to assemble a helicopter on board.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been largely curbed thanks to joint international efforts which includes, but is not limited to, military operations. But nobody can safely conclude piracy is no longer a threat.
The piracy threat at sea has its roots on land. Although a federal government is now in place in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, its control over the country remains miserably weak.
A Western analyst has said, almost sarcastically, that the Somali government’s control is restricted only to the airport and the presidential palace. And the United Nation has repeatedly warned piracy could stage a comeback if the political situation in Somalia remains unstable and the problem of high unemployment unsolved.
Therefore, the counter-piracy mission is likely to continue, though under a more flexible arrangement. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have even publicly discussed discontinuing their counter-piracy missions by the end of 2016 but promised to maintain some kind of presence off the coast of Somalia if necessary.
Every year about 1,600 Chinese vessels pass through the Gulf of Aden, and more ships carrying oil for China are likely to sail to through the Strait of Hormuz. The security of sea lanes cannot be more critical for China, which relies on maritime transport for up to 90 percent of its foreign trade.Militarily, Djibouti’s advantage lies in its location, deep water ports and friendly attitude toward foreign troops.
Djibouti is strategically located－at the entrance from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. It oversees the Bab al-Mandeb (or the Mandeb Strait), one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
And the waters in the Port of Djibouti are deep enough for an aircraft carrier like France’s Charles de Gaulle to dock. Moreover, the Djibouti government welcomes the presence of American, French, Japanese and Chinese troops on its soil.
Djibouti not only occupies a vantage point in the fight against piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa. It is also a gateway for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid and disaster relief in Africa and the Middle East, two missions that are increasingly becoming part of the PLA’s overseas operations.
At present 2,787 Chinese peacekeepers are deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, South Sudan, Sudan, Mali and Lebanon. A standby PLA force of 8,000 troops is being built. The PLA has also taken part in quite a few humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations along the rim of the Indian Ocean and other parts of Africa, from evacuating foreign citizens from war-torn Yemen to fighting the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In the long run, Djibouti could serve as a PLA station for regional capacity building. One of the ways China is helping global governance is by strengthening regional institutions such as the African Union. Beijing has also announced a $100-million free military aid for the AU to help establish the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis.
The PLA’s logistic support station can therefore serve more than counter-piracy missions. It could be a milestone in China’s support for stabilizing Africa and the Middle East where China’s greater role in regional security is more than welcome.