MELBOURNE, Australia — Chinese President Xi Jinping has told People’s Liberation Army troops stationed at an overseas base in Djibouti to “promote international and regional peace and stability,” according to China’s Ministry of National Defense. However, satellite imagery reveals information that could further detail China’s intentions.
Speaking via video feed during a visit to a joint battle command center in Beijing, Xi encouraged the overseas force to promote a good image of China’s military.
The 36-hectare base is located to the southwest of the Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port under construction by China State Construction Engineering Corporation, and it is just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, currently the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.
China began construction of the base in March last year after it secured of a 10-year lease for what it had said will be a logistics support base used to resupply ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea.
However, Chinese state news agency Xinhua has noted the base can also be used for military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese citizens, and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.
Indeed, retired Indian military satellite imagery analyst Col. Vinayak Bhat examined satellite imagery of the facility and called it a “massive fortress” able to “easily accommodate over a brigade-strength force,” adding that it would allow China to “monitor all shipping movements through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden” as well as “exert influence in the African continent.”
Bhat had written in Indian news portal The Print that the base contains numerous storage barracks, an ammunition point, an office complex and a heliport. For security, the base perimeter consists of four layers of fencing and walls, with roads built in between the layers for security patrols.
The heliport has a 1,300-foot runway, a control tower and a large hangar along with seven smaller ones to support helicopter deployments. Latest satellite imagery analyzed by Bhat also suggests the existence of ground control systems for UAVs.
A separate, hardened, semi-underground facility adjacent to the heliport with three bunkers has been identified as almost certainly an ammunition storage facility. Bhat also concluded that a semi-underground storage facility for petroleum, oil and lubricants has been constructed at the northern end of the base, next to two long buildings, which could be vehicle sheds.
The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, conducted a ceremony on Aug. 1 to mark the opening of the base, with the first contingent of personnel, vehicles and supporting equipment having departed the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s base at Zhanjiang on July 11 headed for Djibouti on board a Type 071-class landing platform dock and a semisubmersible logistics support ship. These included a detachment of Chinese troops and marines, and are supported by at least six ZBD-09 infantry fighting vehicles, with the latter shown in state media photos of the ceremony.
Taken together, the size of the base, its security measures and the deployed equipment suggests the PLA has more than the support of anti-piracy patrols and logistics in mind for the base. One possibility is that China plans to set up an expeditionary force, ready for use to respond to any crisis threatening its numerous economic and commercial interests in Africa and the “maritime silk road” — part of Xi’s One Belt One Road Initiative linking China to Europe.
It was also revealed that the marine detachment had trained at the Djibouti military’s facilities for the first time. The commander of China’s base there, Liang Yang, was quoted as saying the live-fire exercise will help explore a new training model for the PLA’s first overseas garrison.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.