Back in March, when the Saudis were in the early stages of executing Operation Decisive Storm (the air campaign aimed at routing the Iran-backed rebels who had recently taken control of Yemen prompting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Riyadh), the world began to get very nervous after the Houthis entered a military base at the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
Bab el-Mandeb is a key chokepoint for global crude and needless to say, just about the last thing Saudi Arabia (or the West for that matter) wanted to see was an Iranian proxy army taking control of one side of the corridor.
At the time, Aden was a veritable warzone as a loose confederation of troops still loyal to Hadi battled to keep the Houthis from overrunning the historic port city. Just as hostilities reached a crescendo, unidentified troops showed up, disembarked, and rescued dozens of foreign nationals trapped in the escalating violence. As it turns out, those troops were Chinese.
At the time, the rescue mission took virtually everyone off guard. China had inexplicably sailed a warship into the middle of a Mid-East proxy war, calmly strolled ashore, picked up some folks and left.
While the bold display of naval power came as a surprise in April, it's now easy to put the maneuver in context. Since then, we've seen Beijing project its maritime capabilities on a number of occasions. The PLA's man-made islands in The South China Sea are the most notable example, but don't forget that China also sailed warships within 12 nautical miles of Alaska's coast and is also readying patrols by a nuclear submarine. In other words, China's impromtu appearance in Aden was part and parcel of a wider effort to make it clear that Beijing is set to build and maintain a true blue-water navy.
In that context, consider another map showing the Bab al-Mandeb:
On one side is Yemen, on the other, Djibouti. As we outlined back in May, China is negotiating a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti. Why Djibouti? So China can have a bird's eye view of everything that happens at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait: one of the top 5 oil choke points in the world (from the EIA):"An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline."
Six months later, it looks like those plans are on track. As WSJ reports on Friday, "China plans to build its first overseas naval installation in the East African nation of Djibouti, expanding the geographical reach of its armed forces as Beijing seeks to protect its growing economic and security interests around the globe."
True to form, China is attempting to downplay the effort, calling the installation a "support facility." "This facility will better ensure that the Chinese military can carry out responsibilities such as international peacekeeping, naval escorts in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, and humanitarian assistance,” a defense ministry spokesman said.
As WSJ goes on to note, "China has often cited its lack of foreign bases as evidence of peaceful intentions, but has been rapidly expanding its military capabilities in recent years to defend its regional territorial claims and project power far into the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean."
The US - which also has a base in Djibouti - is adopting Washington's trademark condescending paternalism in discussions with the country's government. "We definitely have concerns and parameters that were communicated in terms of how we think they should manage Chinese or anyone else entering into what is already a fairly congested space."
Here's a bit of useful color from The New York Times:
China announced on Thursday that it would establish its first overseas military outpost and unveiled a sweeping plan to reorganize its military into a more agile force capable of projecting power abroad.
The outpost, in the East African nation of Djibouti, breaks with Beijing’s longstanding policy against emulating the United States in building military facilities abroad.
By establishing an outpost in the Horn of Africa — more than 4,800 miles away from Beijing and near some of the world’s most volatile regions — President Xi Jinping is leading the military beyond its historical focus on protecting the nation’s borders.
Together with the plan for new command systems to integrate and rebalance the armed forces, the two announcements highlight the breadth of change that Mr. Xi is pushing on the People’s Liberation Army, which for decades has served primarily as a lumbering guardian of Communist Party rule.
A presence in Djibouti would be China’s first overseas logistics facility to service its military vessels since the Communists took power, said David Finkelstein, director of China studies at CNA, an independent research institute in Arlington, Va.
“In the grand sweep of post-1949 Chinese history, this announcement is yet another indicator that Chinese policy is trying to catch up with national interests that have expanded faster than the capacity of the People’s Republic of China to service them,” Mr. Finkelstein said.
The new facility would enable the navy to live up to a strategy laid down this year by the Communist Party in a major defense document, known as a white paper, that outlined its ambitions to become a global maritime power.
China has invested heavily in Djibouti’s infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars spent upgrading the country’s undersize port. It has also financed a railroad extending from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Djibouti, a project that cost billions of dollars. The country has a population of about 900,000, many of whom live in poverty.
Strategically, Djibouti offers an excellent place from which to protect oil imports from the Middle East that traverse the Indian Ocean on their way to China, military experts say. From Djibouti, China gains greater access to the Arabian Peninsula.
Indeed they do, and that means not only will Beijing be able to keep a close eye on seaborne crude, they'll also be better prepared to intervene in Mid-East affairs should the situation call for it.
As we discussed in "Here Comes China: Xi 'Vows Terror Fight' After ISIS Executes First Chinese Hostage," it seems unlikely that Beijing will be able to stay out of Mid-East affairs forever. Although one dead Chinese hostage likely won't be enough to make Xi commit to a full fledged military campaign in Syria, China did send several warships to the Mediterranean in 2013 as the standoff between Russia and the US hit a crescendo and Beijing is already engaged in a fight to curb radicalization among Uighurs in Xinjiang. As Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College told Bloomberg earlier this week, "It appears that events are dragging China further into the Syrian crisis. On one level, Russian intervention and the Paris attacks have raised the stakes and made Beijing’s preferred option of a political resolution much less likely. The killing of a Chinese national will certainly inject a new variable into Beijing’s calculations about its position on the conflict."
Of course China isn't going to build a naval base in a week (although they did just build a bridge in 43 hours), so it's not as if the PLA will be sailing from Djibouti to Latakia next month, but the point is that we're seeing a strategic shift from Beijing in line with everything we've observed over the past nine months from the rescue operation in Aden to the construction of some 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory in the South Pacific.
Xi is branching out and China is projecting its military prowess. The new naval base has implications both for global energy markets and for the Mid-East balance of power. If Moscow and Tehran do indeed pull off a coup wherein Russia replaces the US as the Mid-East's superpower puppet master and Iran supplants Saudi Arabia as regional power broker, China will now have a base within shouting distance of its allies (recall that China generally votes with Russia on the Security Council with regard to Syria).
We'll close with the following quote from Andrew Erickson, an expert on the Chinese military at the U.S. Naval War College:
“China has for decades proudly proclaimed its lack of military facilities on foreign soil, so seeking long-term military access at a quasi-base level is a massive about-face… China is poised to cross the Rubicon.”