China on Thursday acknowledged plans to set up a naval logistics centre in Djibouti to support warships on anti-piracy missions, a move that could bolster its presence in the Indian Ocean region.
Beijing currently has no foreign military bases and has consistently said in the past it will not seek them. Defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said China hopes the centre will ease difficulties in refuelling and replenishing Chinese navy ships operating in the Gulf of Aden.
“China and Djibouti are discussing about a logistics centre. It is aimed to provide better facilities so that personnel on Chinese vessels can get better rest and replenishments,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said while responding to US claims that China is building its first military base in Africa to extend its reach.
Djibouti is strategically located near the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It serves as a key refuelling and trans-shipment centre.
China has sent more than 60 ships to waters off the Somali coast on 21 escort missions since December 2008.
When asked whether the plans amounted to a military base like those maintained by the US, Britain and others, defence ministry spokesperson Wu declined to say.
Lei said Chinese vessels had faced difficulties in “getting rest and replenishment and supplies” while operating in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia.
“Therefore we need to provide better service in this regard. China and Djibouti are friendly countries. Now we are having consultations on building up these logistics facilities,” he said.
The construction of “relevant facilities” will help China’s military “further carry out its international responsibilities to safeguard global and regional peace and stability”, Lei added.
In May, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh told French media his government was in talks with China about a “military base”. He said China’s presence would be welcome in the former French colony that borders Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
China currently uses the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean as a logistics base. It has also invested in two major ports -- Hambantota and Colombo -- in Sri Lanka.
China has also taken over the Pakistani port of Gwadar as part of its development of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
With its first refurbished aircraft carrier in operation and with two more being constructed, China is on the lookout for bigger port facilities in Asia and Africa, analysts said.
The move comes at a time when China’s outreach to Africa, in terms of trade and investments, surpasses that of the US and India.
Analysts said a base in Africa would be cheaper than temporary arrangements for docking ships at Djibouti. It comes with an airfield, which could enhance the Chinese military’s ability to gather intelligence in Africa and parts of the Middle East.
China has cemented its foothold in the Indian Ocean by signing contracts with the UN-backed International Seabed Authority (ISA) in 2011 to gain rights to explore poly-metallic sulphide ore deposits in the Indian Ocean over the next 15 years.
Strategically located Djibouti, with a population of less than one million, already hosts the headquarters of the US Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force -- Horn of Africa. Former colonial ruler France too maintains a large military presence in the country.