fb-pixel Skip to main content

China sets up first military post in Africa

Beijing reveals sweeping plan to reorganize

BEIJING — China said Thursday 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.

The Foreign Ministry refrained from describing the new installation as a military base, saying it would be used to resupply Chinese navy ships that have been participating in UN anti-piracy missions.

Yet 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 — China 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 announcements highlight the breadth of change that President Xi Jinping is pushing on the People's Liberation Army, which for decades has served primarily as a lumbering guardian of Communist Party rule.

Xi told senior military officers this week that he wanted to "build a robust national defense and a strong military that corresponds to our country's international stature and is adapted to our national security and developmental interests," the Xinhua news agency reported.

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," 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.


The United States maintains its only military base on the African continent in Djibouti, which it uses as a staging ground for counterterrorism operations in Africa and the Middle East. Last year, President Obama renewed the lease on that base for 20 more years.

China has invested heavily in Djibouti's infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars spent upgrading the country's undersized port. It has also financed a railroad extending from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Djibouti, a project that cost billions of dollars. Djibouti 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 that travel from the Middle East to the Indian Ocean on their way to China, military experts say.

The news of broad changes to the Chinese military signaled a major step forward in Xi's program to shift its focus from traditional land armies to a more flexible, cohesive set of forces. China's military planning and spending have increasingly focused on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and in waters near Japan.