On the west side of Djibouti City sits a sprawling military compound. Within its razorwire-topped walls are helipads, a dock large enough to fit aircraft carriers, and 2,000 troops alongside armoured vehicles and gunboats.
Opened in 2017, this is China’s first overseas military base – but could soon be one of many located across Africa if those sounding the alarm in Washington are correct.
The Department of Defense warned last year that Beijing has ‘likely’ sought bases in Angola, the Seychelles, Kenya, and Tanzania, and just this week General Stephen Townsend – America’s top brass in Africa – warned a new naval base similar to the one in Djibouti could soon appear on Africa’s west coast.
Such a base, which could be located anywhere from Mauritania to Namibia, would allow China to project its growing military might not just across the Pacific Ocean but the Atlantic too, General Townsend said.
But while the thought of Chinese military bases popping up across Africa may be new to some, in fact it is only the latest chapter in a decades-long effort to bring the continent under Beijing’s sway that has gone largely unnoticed.
‘The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa,’ Gen. Townsend said as he issued his warning. ‘Port projects, economic endeavors, infrastructure and their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa.’
And he’s right. It seems that, almost wherever you look on the continent, China’s influence is being felt.
Railways? China is building them, including new lines between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, Abuja and Kaduna in Nigeria, Lobito and Luau in Angola, and between Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Ports? China again, constructing or expanding no less than 41 harbours in sub-Saharan Africa up to 2019, according to a CSIS report, meaning Beijing now has a commercial interest in around one in five of the total.
Africa’s power grid is also being transformed off the back of Chinese investment. Environmentalists kicked up a stink when it emerged late last year that China has financed seven new coal-fired plants in Africa with plans for 13 more – but the country is also investing in hydroelectric, and has interests in some of the continent’s largest dams.
For example, the huge Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which spans the Blue Nile and has sparked tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt, is a project in which China is heavily involved.
To run those projects, thousands of Chinese companies and tens of thousands of Chinese workers have set up on the continent and show no sign of going anywhere.
Meanwhile, China has lent at least $153billion to African governments to finance the development – according to the China-Africa Research Initiative – though the real total is thought to be far higher once other types of financing such as grants and direct investment are included.
The projects don’t stop there. According to The Heritage Foundation, China has built no fewer than 186 government buildings in 40 out of 54 African countries, developed 70 per cent of the continent’s 4G networks, and even built sensitive intra-governmental communications networks for 14 nations.
Even the African Union headquarters, located in Ethiopia, was full financed and build by China.
And Beijing’s interest shows no sign of slowing. In 2018, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of a $60billion pot of Chinese money specially ear-marked for development projects in Africa.
In short: If Africa needs it, then China is supplying it. And in spades.
While economic investment is hardly a threat to America on its own, it does buy Beijing influence – meaning that when Xi wants to locate a new military base on the continent, he is likely to find a host of national leaders who are more than happy to welcome him.
And it is that thought which is keeping Townsend and others at the Pentagon awake at night.
‘They´re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,’ Townsend said in an interview with the Associated Press this week.
‘They´re a long way toward establishing that in Djibouti. Now they´re casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there.’