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What Does China’s First Naval Base Abroad Signal About Its Global Intentions?

As much as China may insist that it is resolutely non-interventionist and different from other historical great powers, actions like the opening of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti belie a shift from a low-profile to a more pragmatic foreign policy that asserts and protects China’s interests abroad.


A ship carrying Chinese military personnel departs a port in Zhanjiang, south China’s Guangdong Province. (Wu Dengfeng/Xinhua News Agencyvia AP)

On July 11th, China sent ships carrying military personnel to its first international base in Djibouti. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang stated that the base is intended to support Chinese soldiers and ships in the region by replenishing food and fuel supplies, thus “[enabling] China to better perform the international obligations of the UN escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters as well as humanitarian relief, help with Djibouti’s socio-economic development and allow China to make greater contributions to the peace and stability of Africa and beyond”.

Chinese officials and state media have been careful to avoid describing the base as a military base. Commentary on the state media outlet Xinhua addressed this explicitly, emphasising that “the Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion, and China has no intention of turning the logistics center into a military stronghold”, and describing foreign media interpretations to the contrary as “completely unfounded”. Indeed, even when the base has been described as a military base, it has been qualified with a delineation between those for operational or combat roles and those for logistical support.

In February, 2016, China announced it was building a logistical facility in Djibouti. (Simon Maina/AFP)

However, as implied to in the opening paragraph’s quote from Geng Shuang, officials have been willing to admit that the base is meant to enable China to better protect its overseas interests. At a press conference of the fourth session of China’s 12th National People’s Congress, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that:

“I think [China’s overseas interests are] the key to understanding the matter [of the base in Djibouti]. Like any major country that is growing, China’s overseas interests are expanding. At present, there are 30,000 Chinese enterprises all over the world and several million Chinese are working and living in all corners of the world. Last year, China’s non-financial outbound direct investment reached 118 billion U.S. dollars and the stock of China’s overseas assets reached several trillion U.S. dollars. So it has become a pressing task for China’s diplomacy to better protect our ever-growing overseas interests.”

This comment is remarkable given China’s historical position towards its foreign relations, but is nonetheless exemplary of the shift that has been occurring in China’s foreign policy. In the early 1950s, China and India agreed to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in the preamble of an agreement between the two nations (which can be found here as No. 4307). Specifically, the five principles were mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. Pursuing a foreign policy centred on these principles left China unencumbered by the ideological strictures limiting the Soviet Union or the US, thus allowing China to pursue economic relations with a wider range of foreign states and direct more resources to its own internal development than to its external security (which was still by no means secure, what with US opposition and the more proximate clashes with India and the Soviet Union, for example).

Indeed, this policy of non-intervention and focus on economic development would continue during China’s period of economic reform and liberalisation, perhaps best exemplified by Deng Xiaoping’s idea of a low-profile foreign policy (or 韬光养晦). As a result, China has enjoyed considerable success, drawing millions out of poverty and becoming one of the largest economies in the world. Yet as its economy has grown and its international stature has risen, there has been a concomitant growth in the scope of China’s international interests. So much so, in fact, that China has on occasion had to compromise on its long-held policy of non-interference in favour of a more pragmatic, interest-based foreign policy.

This shift away from a foreign policy based on strict non-intervention can be seen in China’s contributions to the UN. Although originally opposed to UN peacekeeping operations on principle, China now frequently supports resolutions calling for non-consensual interventions. Indeed, China has now become the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops of all five permanent Security Council members, and in September 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged to create a standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers and committed $1 billion towards a UN peace and development fund.

In particular, though, where China’s peacekeeping troops have been stationed is significant. China deployed its first, and to date largest, contingent of combat troops in South Sudan, where China has significant investments in the nation’s old reserves and has worked to resolve that country’s civil war. This arguably constitutes interference in a state’s internal affairs, albeit with international multilateral support, suggesting that when China has significant interests in a region (in this case: oil investments and Chinese nationals working on them) its idealistic principles of non-intervention are less compelling motivations than the more tangible benefits of a more pragmatic approach.

It is in this context that the new base in Djibouti should be viewed. Given China’s sizeable investments on the African continent, measures to protect its interests abroad (which have helped sustain China’s impressive growth) are likely to continue, even if this may at times conflict with China’s older principle of non-interference. Combat-oriented or otherwise, the support the base provides allows China to better project and sustain its forces abroad, helping contribute to the region’s peace and stability, which in turn helps safeguard its own interests in the region. The Djibouti base is situated at the Mandeb Strait, a strategically significant waterway for China’s and the world’s energy and resources. Keeping this location secure (for example, from piracy) helps maintain the stability and prosperity that China has experienced over the last few decades as it has reformed its economy.

As a result, it is perhaps not so surprising that international observers have been wary of China’s new base. When viewed in light of its actions elsewhere, it would appear that China is following the path laid out by many great powers before it and expanding its ability to project its forces abroad. What may have been a foreign policy committed to non-intervention is gradually giving way to a more pragmatic, realist approach, where China is increasingly inclined to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations to protect its own interests.


(Featured image credit: Amirhosein Khorgooi/Tehran Times)


Justin Elliott is a contributor to based in Melbourne, Australia.