China sending forces to its first overseas military base – in Africa

Yesterday marked a new era in China's geostrategy, as it began deploying military forces to its first overseas military base, building the capacity to project military force globally.  The Associated Press reports:

China has sent members of its People's Liberation Army to the African nation of Djibouti to man its first overseas military base.

The move on Tuesday is a key part of a wide-ranging expansion of the role of the Asian giant's armed forces.

The Defence Ministry said on its website that a ceremony was held at a naval pier in the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang.

It said the personnel would travel by navy ship to the Horn of Africa nation but gave no details on numbers or units.

The deployment is highly strategic.

Djibouti is already home to the centre of American operations in Africa, while France, Britain, Japan and other nations also maintain a military presence in the small but strategically located nation.

It also reverses a longstanding claim by China that, unlike the United States, it is peaceful and does not want to project its military force overseas.  President Xi is leading a far more aggressive phase of China's accommodation with the world.  Americans tend to forget that for most of human history, China was the dominant world power and the undisputed champion of economic sophistication and scale, known by its Asian neighbors as the "Middle Kingdom."  The loss of that status when Westerners showed up and started addicting millions of Chinese to opium while using superior armaments to humble China and receive extraterritorial concessions, among other humiliations, still rankles.  Following the detour into communism, China is now determined to recover its natural status (in Chinese eyes) as the world's real superpower.

Also generally ignored by most Americans, China has developed a huge economic relationship with Africa, in particular East Africa.  Chinese-manufactured consumer goods dominate markets there, and large numbers of traders connect the two areas.  China has long prioritized building a robust presence in East Africa, in no small part because of the vast mineral wealth found there.  Between 1970 and 1975, China embarked on its first foreign aid project in East Africa: constructing the Tazara Railway (also called the Tanzam or the Uhuru Railway), connecting the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaaam to the Copper Belt of Zambia, enabling copper exports to avoid transit through white-ruled Rhodesia.  Construction of the line, more than a thousand miles long, required the dispatch of thousands of Chinese workers and cost China billions of dollars in inflation-adjusted currency at a time when China was a very poor nation.  For all the priority placed on it, the line became almost superfluous when the white regime fell in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe.  Built on a turnkey basis and handed over the to the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) for the Africans to run, the railway has deteriorated to a state of near collapse.

That precedent of direct involvement in East Africa to the contrary notwithstanding, China no doubt hopes that it outpost in Djibouti will be the beginning of something much bigger than the rusting Tazara Railway.

Hat tip: John McMahon

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