Chinese military base in Djibouti: Another reason for India to worry
China formally opened its first military base on the Indian Ocean littoral in the small but strategic African country of Djibouti. Outwardly there is no reason for New Delhi to be overly excited by this lone event. Beijing had announced its plans to set up a base there a few years ago and the ships carrying the first batch of base personnel left China last month. Djibouti rents portions of its territory to foreign countries as a revenue model: France, the United States and Japan have military bases there.
China has described the base as a logistics facility and that it would be used to support anti-piracy and humanitarian missions in the Horn of Africa. This is not without basis. China has been an active participant in fighting Somali pirates. It has begun deploying blue-helmeted peacekeepers in places like South Sudan.
Nonetheless, India has reason to be wary. Over the years, China has put forward the argument that it needs to project its military and political influence into the Indian Ocean to safeguard energy and trade supplies. It will have further interests if and when the various Belt Road Initiative projects in the Indian Ocean region come up.
Beijing also seems to believe that it must be more active in holding up its friend, Pakistan. While China denies this, there is a widespread expectation that its work on expanding Gwadar’s facilities will eventually convert that Pakistani port into a de facto Chinese naval base. Even the Djibouti base seems to be preparing for a larger role: It already has aerial facilities probably designed for long-range drones and a number of underground structures.
India’s response must be to deepen and widen its own footprint in the ocean that bears its name. Nothing can be done to stop China or any other country from building bases or investing in the Indian Ocean region. New Delhi, however, must seek to ensure that Beijing is not the only game in town.
It has already begun the spadework in this direction with its outreach to African littoral states, trying to build up the Bay of Bengal area and bringing the island states in the ocean closer. Usefully it has also sought to do so in cooperation with other countries like Japan. The truth remains that the Indian Ocean is a geopolitical vacuum which will inevitably attract the attention of external players.
New Delhi should remain open to a dialogue with Beijing to address the latter’s concerns about the Indian Ocean – though Beijing has so far shown little interest in such a discussion.