First Place — On the Shores of Bab-el-Mandeb: Assessing China’s First Overseas Military Base in Djibouti and  Chinese Grand Strategic Vision for the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean

Image caption:  U.S. Navy Sailors assigned to Camp Lemonnier walk on the deck of the Chinese hospital ship, Ark Peace, in the Port of Djibouti, August 28, 2017. (Source)

This essay was originally published in the Acheson Prize 2018 print issue of the Yale Review of International Studies.


 

Introduction

Doraleh Multipurpose Port opened in Djibouti this May with as much pomp and circumstance as the tiny Horn of Africa country could muster. A dozen or so large red balloons were tied to the ground and celebrated the occasion with pithy Chinese slogans. At the site of the brand-new port, where the ceremony was held in open air, foreign dignitaries and local officials alike donned suits despite the sweltering weather. The ones who were higher up in rank, of course, got to sit with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh in an air-conditioned tent. A red carpet was rolled out from the President’s tent to the podium, where speakers took turns commending Djibouti and its partner, China, on this joint achievement. Lines of Djiboutian construction workers flanked the podium under the glare of the morning sun; crowds of Chinese engineers and staff cheered them on from nearby tents.

The new port is but one of many Chinese construction feats in Djibouti. The Ethiopian-Djiboutian electric railway that opened in January—the first of its kind in Africa—was a $4 billion project undertaken by Chinese construction companies and financed by Chinese banks.[1] China Merchants Group (CMG), one of the main investors in the Doraleh Multipurpose Port project, owns approximately 20% of the Port of Djibouti and thus has stakes in the country’s other ports as well. Most recently, the spotlight is on a soon-to-commence water project funded by the Export-Import Bank of China that would transport drinking water from Ethiopia to Djibouti.[2] A survey of the major Chinese-financed projects in Djibouti shows that total investments, mostly in the form of loans, add up to more than $1.3 billion.[3] But why Djibouti?

Pure profits aside, the answer may well lie in Djibouti’s strategic location on the eastern tip of the African continent and the western shores of the Indian Ocean.[4] Two months after Doraleh Multipurpose Port opened, a large group of Chinese gathered again at Doraleh to celebrate the completion of another construction masterpiece: China’s first overseas military base, located just a few minutes away from Doraleh Multipurpose Port. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to which the military facility is dedicated, now has exclusive use of at least one of the Doraleh port’s berths.[5] From its new vantage point, the PLAN is also able to overlook one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world—the Gulf of Aden, specifically the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which an estimated 12.5 to 20 percent of global trade must pass.[6] The narrowest part of Bab-el-Mandeb is only 18-miles wide.[7]

Officially labeled as a military support facility for the PLAN, China’s outpost in Djibouti is groundbreaking for many reasons. It became the first overseas military outpost ever to be sanctioned by the Chinese government when authorities in Beijing confirmed that negotiations with the Djiboutian government were underway in 2015.[8] Additionally, it is located merely eight miles away from Camp Lemonnier, the largest U.S. military base in Africa for the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The development marks the first time the two superpowers and their militaries will be in such close proximity to each other. Understanding the significance of China’s military base in Djibouti becomes an important task. What conditions made the construction of the facility possible? What are China’s motivations? How does it fit into China’s vision for the future of the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean at large? Does China even have a grand strategy?

Over the summer, the author of this paper conducted research in four locations: Washington, D.C.; Djibouti, Djibouti; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Beijing, China. The strength of this report is based on the synthesis of sources from different perspectives: American, African, and Chinese. The author argues that the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean are two seemingly separate theaters that are united by the grand strategic vision for a more expansive Chinese presence in international security. To understand Chinese grand strategy, one must begin by seeing the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean as one amphibious stage on which China is fulfilling its aspirations and responsibilities as a rising global power.

 

Background

Djibouti: The Home of Military Bases

The Republic of Djibouti is a small country in East Africa cursed with a harsh climate and few natural resources. According to the World Bank, its GDP is $1.727 billion.[9] The national economy is sustained by rent collected from foreign military bases, foreign financing and direct investments, and port services for maritime trade, such as docking, replenishment, and transportation.[10] Because of its strategic location by the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti handles more than 90 percent of imports and exports for its landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia.[11] The country also sits on a maritime chokepoint for international trade, with 3.8 million barrels of oil passing through Bab-el-Mandeb every day.[12] Previously a part of French Somaliland and later the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977.[13] Hassan Gouled Aptidon instituted a one-party state and led the country as president from Djiboutian independence until 1999.[14] Then, multiparty presidential elections took place for the first time, resulting in the victory of Ismail Omar Guelleh. The democratic façade soon disappeared, however, as Guelleh ran uncontested for a fourth presidential term in 2016 and remains in power today with little opposition.[15] The country consists of two main ethnic groups: the Somalis (60 percent of the population) and the Afars (35 percent); French and Arabic are the two official languages.[16] The country is ethnically and linguistically diverse, with sizeable Ethiopian and Yemeni minorities. Overall, the Central Intelligence Agency characterizes Djibouti as a “poor, predominantly urban country, characterized by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, and childhood malnutrition.”[17] The majority of its population lives in the capital, which is also called Djibouti. But compared to the rest of the region, which faces challenges from piracy, terrorist groups, and civil wars, Djibouti has a stable government and is often hailed as an oasis of peace. The maintenance of peace and stability in Djibouti is also vital to the foreign countries with military bases and personnel in the country, which include the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, and now China.

China’s Military Outpost in Djibouti

On January 21, 2016, the Chinese government announced the construction of a military base in Djibouti.[18] It branded China’s first overseas outpost as a logistical support facility for the PLAN—a mere stopping place for the navy to rest and recoup—and was careful not to emphasize the military aspect of the development.[19] “In fulfilling escort missions, we encountered real difficulties in replenishing soldiers and resupplying fuel and food, and found it really necessary to have nearby and efficient logistical support,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters in 2016. “China and Djibouti consulted with each other and reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable the Chinese troops to better fulfill escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability.”[20] Indeed, the PLAN has conducted escort missions in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 to deter piracy and terrorism in the region.[21] In 2014, China stepped up its military engagement when it signed a security and defense strategic partnership agreement with Djibouti, which gave the Chinese navy permission to use Djibouti as a home port.[22] Building a military facility of its own seemed to be the next logical step for China. According to Public Radio International, China signed a ten-year lease for the base and will pay $20 million a year in rent.[23]

This summer, China officially opened its base in Djibouti.[24] The choice of August 1, 2017 for the opening ceremony—the date of the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army—was no coincidence.[25] Chinese media celebrated the opening of the base with many reports in the past three months, noting that the occasion marks a win-win situation for China and the world.[26] Some wondered why Western powers are so concerned given that Djibouti already hosts several foreign military bases.[27] Others reiterated the base’s function as a support facility for Chinese naval escort missions and other humanitarian and international responsibilities.[28] On September 23, footage of the first live-fire Chinese military drill aired on the state-run CCTV as a “show of force” to China’s admirers and competitors alike.[29] For this and other reasons, Western media outlets have expressed doubts about the outpost’s primary function as a support facility. According to CNN, satellite images show that the Chinese military base has a large underground space as well as tarmac and hangars to support aerial capabilities.[30] The base is located around 30 minutes west of Djibouti City and eight miles away from the U.S. base (see Figure 2).

From the American point of view, China’s PLAN facility in Djibouti is unsettling because of its proximity to Camp Lemonnier, the primary base of operations for Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the Horn of Africa and the only permanent U.S. military base on the African continent.[31] CJTF-HOA was first established in the wake of the September 11 attacks for counter-terrorism purposes. In 2003, the U.S. formed a land lease agreement with the Djiboutian government to station CJTF-HOA at Camp Lemonnier, a former French base. While its initial mission focused on deterring terrorist organizations in the region, CJTF-HOA soon expanded its responsibilities to include civil affairs projects and was transferred from the Marine Corps to the U.S. Navy.[32] PRI reports that the U.S. pays $63 million a year to lease the base, having signed a 10-year renewal contract with the Djiboutian government in 2014.[33] Since then, the camp has also been enlarged from 88 to 500 acres, and the U.S. plans to dedicate an additional $1 billion to enhancing the space.[34] Around 4,000 U.S. “joint and allied forces military and civilian personnel and U.S. Department of Defense contractors” as well as 100 local and third country nationals work at Camp Lemonnier.[35] So far, despite their proximity, the U.S. and Chinese militaries have had little contact in Djibouti, though both sides continue to view each other with caution.

China in Africa

A Chinese military base in Djibouti undoubtedly has consequences for the surrounding Horn of Africa region, and could even impact overall Chinese foreign policy toward Africa. Existing literature on China in Africa offers an array of views. One end of the spectrum characterizes Chinese actions as a form of neo-colonialism and condemns the country’s extractive, resource-focused practices on the continent, while the other sees Sino-African relations in a more positive light, arguing that China is supporting the continent’s development.

To start, the belief that China is exploiting Africa is not unfounded. From the late 1970s until 2010, China achieved a three-decades-long economic miracle of 10 percent annual GDP growth that depended heavily on natural resources. The Council on Foreign Affairs’ Eleanor Albert notes that Chinese became a net oil importer in 1993, with Africa supplying the second largest source of oil after the Middle East.[36] To ensure that it had a steady supply of energy and raw materials, China engaged in ruthless commercial diplomacy with African nations, often through financing their economic development and providing direct loans to their governments. In 2009, China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner.[37] Even today, with Chinese GDP growth dipping below seven percent, Africa continues to be an important source of natural resources and a big market for Chinese manufactured goods. Because of overcapacity at home, China has also exported large segments of its construction industry to Africa in the form of infrastructure projects and, some argue, under the guise of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (also known as One Belt, One Road). Consequently, one easy way of understanding Chinese strategy in Africa is to see the country’s actions on the continent as expediting resource extraction and maximizing its economic advantages to fuel growth at home. A military base in Djibouti fits into this perspective in that China is protecting its commercial interests in Africa against piracy, terrorism, and regional instability.

Nevertheless, other scholars have complicated the first view by stressing that Africa does not account for a large percentage of China’s international trade. African nations may provide raw materials, but they are not important trading partners for China otherwise. In 2012, Africa made up just five percent of Chinese global trade, and foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa accounted for less than four percent of total Chinese FDI that year.[38] In 2008, Singapore invested more in Africa than China.[39] A Brookings report written by Yun Sun cautions that “a simplistic perception of Africa as China’s supplier of raw materials inevitably neglects other key aspects of Africa within China’s global strategy.”[40] Indeed, countries in the Horn of Africa are resource-poor compared to their counterparts in the south; Djibouti itself offers little except for leasable land. To view Chinese actions in this part of Africa as pure economics is thus to ignore other arguably more valuable assets that the region has to offer. That said, the Horn of Africa does serve as an important transit point between China and the rest of Africa and for international maritime trade.

In addition to economics, Chinese policy toward Africa also includes security, political, and ideological dimensions.[41] After evacuating citizens en masse from Libya in 2011, China has become more committed to the “physical security of Chinese investments and nationals in Africa.”[42] Studies have estimated that there are around one million Chinese citizens residing in Africa, many of whom are increasingly relying on the Chinese government for their safety.[43] Africa also plays an important role in offering power and legitimacy to China. The 54 countries in Africa make up more than one-fourth of the votes in the United Nations, and 26 of them contributed to China’s admission into the UN in 1972.[44] Politically, China enjoys support from the continent in the UN and other international organizations and looks to build diplomatic relations with African countries that recognize its One China policy. Furthermore, China has an ideological stake in helping non-Western and non-democratic African states succeed to demonstrate the viability of the China model. During the Cold War, when China was still a poor and undeveloped country, it sought solidarity with African countries in a shared history of Western colonialism and imperialism. Beginning in the 1960s, the government offered development aid to African and other “Third World” countries despite difficult conditions at home.[45] After reform and opening up in the late 1970s, China no longer stressed ideology as the only common bond and built more practical relations with Africa. Still, in a subtler way, China is proving to African countries that its own model of “political authoritarianism and economic capitalism” is an appealing alternative to Western liberal democracy.”[46]

A July report published by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, an influential think tank in China, describes Africa as exemplifying Xi Jinping’s “shared fate” ideology, coined in 2013 when the Chinese president visited Africa.[47] Built on a history of friendship and shared sufferings under Western colonial powers, Sino-African relations today is held together by a shared destiny of common prosperity.[48] Instead of a zero-sum game, China seeks to engage Africa in a win-win partnership. Economically, China and Africa complement each other in their needs, and China is also keen on providing direct aid to Africa and helping the continent develop basic infrastructure. Additionally, the report boasts that China has demonstrated an unprecedented level of commitment to African security in recent years, including peacekeeping in South Sudan, naval escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, and security cooperation with Djibouti. China has participated in 16 UN peacekeeping missions, contributed $100 million in military aid, and sent around 27,000 peacekeepers to the continent.[49] Clearly China wants Africa to develop, and to develop sustainably under its guidance. In this context, a military facility in Djibouti means China is willing to step up its engagements in Africa to the benefit of the continent.

The Indian Ocean: A Rising Geopolitical Center Stage?

Beyond the African continent, a Chinese naval base in Djibouti could signal a change in China’s grand strategic maritime vision as well. After all, the base may be situated on land, but its gaze is fixed on the wide expanse of water that makes up the Indian Ocean. On a tactical level, the base does not pose a real threat, as China has emphasized its function mainly as a resting station for the navy. But strategically, it could change great power dynamics on sea. As a result, understanding the Indian Ocean as a potential geopolitical center stage helps situate the discussion about the significance of China’s military outpost in Djibouti.

Researchers Peter Dombrowski and Andrew C. Winner at the U.S. Naval War College define the Indian Ocean as a region stretching from South Africa to Australia, which includes 47 countries and five key sea lines of communication for energy transportation (see Figure 3).[50] In fact, more than 85 percent of Chinese imported oil pass through the Indian Ocean, highlighting the commercial significance of the body of water.[51] Yet the researchers argue that regionalism and the relegation of the Indian Ocean to the status of a secondary maritime theater have led the U.S. to overlook the strategic importance of the region. It is difficult to recognize the Indian Ocean as a single entity because it has several “focal points,” each with its own history and set of problems.[52] Nevertheless, they write that “the Indian Ocean may soon emerge as a zone of conflict between the world’s lone remaining superpower, the United States, and its emerging challenger, China.”[53]

The movement of Chinese commercial and military fleets across the Indian Ocean today evokes the journeys of Zheng He, the 15th-century Ming dynasty admiral who piloted Chinese maritime expeditions to South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa almost a century before any European explorers reached Asia.[54] In his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan notes that the Chinese emphasis on Zheng He today helps the country lay a historical claim on the body of water. Although the Ming admiral never built a permanent Chinese presence in the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, his explorations did extend his country’s commercial and political power far beyond its territorial boundaries. Kaplan believes that Zheng He’s manifestation of soft power in the form of alliance and tribute systems is exactly what China wants the Indian Ocean to look like in the future.[55]

Some experts have described Chinese actions in the Indian Ocean as constituting a “string of pearls” strategy. Dombrowski and Winner explain that China wants to invest in a series of friendly ports, military bases, and access points along the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean to “more easily project military power in the region.”[56] Their book, which was published in 2014, argues that China is not yet a threat to the U.S. in the Indian Ocean, but Chinese actions there should be treated with care.[57] Kaplan, who wrote in 2010, also notes that Washington is skeptical of the so-called pearls strategy and that China’s intentions in the region are far from clear.[58] Nevertheless, he gives three main reasons for the Chinese pursuit of sea power. First, he points out that the expansion of naval power is a luxury for China, which has been successful in securing its land borders only in recent years. Then, he names commerce as a primary driving force for the country’s increased presence in the Indian Ocean, through which much of its oil and other natural resources must pass through nowadays. Finally, a successful Chinese grand strategy in the Indian Ocean would transform the country into a true global power.[59] Kaplan goes beyond the pearls analogy to describe Chinese naval aspirations as the pursuit of a two-ocean strategy. “A one-ocean navy in the western Pacific makes China a regional power; a two-ocean navy in both the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean makes China a great power, able to project force around the whole navigable Eurasian rimland.”[60] When China accomplishes such a feat, it will control a strategic part of the world that stretches from the coast of Africa to the Korean Peninsula, thus greatly expanding its power projection capabilities.

Chinese Maritime Strategy Under Xi Jinping

China has made great strides in military reform and modernization under Xi Jinping’s rule. It would be remiss if this paper did not include a brief section discussing the big picture of Chinese maritime strategy, in which the country’s outpost in Djibouti constitutes only a small step toward the goal of a stronger and more international Chinese military. In 2015, China’s Ministry of Defense published an official white paper on national defense. This document introduced a new two-tiered maritime strategy of “offshore waters defense and open seas protection.”[61] China has traditionally been committed to the defense of offshore waters, such as the South China Sea. But 2015 marked the first time Chinese overseas interests were incorporated into a white paper, demonstrating that Chinese responsibilities in the “far seas” and shores of the world have been elevated to the level of national security. It also signals Chinese intentions of becoming a global power with far-reaching capabilities. Chinese ambitions to build a blue-water navy were clearly reflected in the following paragraph from the white paper:

The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.[62]

The country’s newfound willingness to embrace active defense and extend its forces far beyond its borders is a break from the past, as China had prioritized regional defense under previous leaders.[63] Nevertheless, the Hu Jintao era did lay the necessary foundations for China’s projection of power today, including calls for the development of a new PLAN strategy as early as 2004.[64] In light of the Chinese strategy for military development, Djibouti can be seen as the first naval outpost to support an increasingly global fleet with a more expansive outreach. It is unlikely that it will be the last.

 

Research Findings

As the background demonstrates, there are many ways to situate and interpret China’s first overseas military outpost in Djibouti. It reflects the changing role of China in Africa, the Indian Ocean as a rising strategic theater, and a new direction in Chinese maritime strategy. To tackle these big questions, the author conducted 30-plus interviews with former and present government officials, scholars, and experts in the United States, Africa, and China in addition to reviewing existing literature. A list of interviewees and interview details has been compiled and added to the end of this paper.

Conditions and Motivations for the Chinese Base in Djibouti

Djibouti is a logical choice of location for China’s first overseas military base for several reasons. First, China is the seventh country to have a military presence in Djibouti, so while the decision to build a military outpost is unprecedented for China, the Chinese are not breaking any new ground in Djibouti. A Financial Times article reports that Saudi Arabia could soon be an eighth member of the club.[65] Clearly, Djibouti is familiar with hosting foreign militaries and has been able to strike a peaceful balance between the foreign powers. Instead of asking why Djibouti, the Chinese are asking why not, especially given the fact that China’s international competitors, such as the United States and Japan, have been in Djibouti for several years now. Second, China has the Djiboutian government’s permission to build the facility. The Sino-Djiboutian relationship has always been friendly, but it warmed up significantly when China began to participate in international counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. The subsequent inflow of Chinese capital and construction projects has helped Djibouti, which aspires to become the Singapore of East Africa, develop its physical infrastructure. Because of Djibouti’s invitation, China does not have to break with its longstanding foreign policy principle of non-interference—colloquially known as “no troops on foreign land”—in order to build the base. As it currently stands, what China has in Djibouti is not a full-fledged base, and the Chinese are adamant about calling it a PLAN support facility and downplaying the military aspect of the outpost in keeping with the non-interference principle. Finally, Djibouti is a safe place to experiment with the idea of overseas military outposts, since China can easily justify its need for a support facility there.

According to the official Chinese stance, the primary responsibility of the base in Djibouti is to provide the PLAN with replenishments (后勤保障) during counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. Starting in the early 2010s, international counter-piracy operations had become increasingly effective, culminating in the absence of any successful pirate attack in 2016.[66] But there has been a resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia this year, which makes the Chinese argument seem more legitimate. Additionally, given Chinese commercial interests and the number of Chinese nationals scattered across Africa, Chinese leaders can foresee using the logistics base for non-combatant evacuations, especially in conflict-prone regions like the Horn of Africa.[67] In the longer term, Chinese forces participating in UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan, South Sudan, and other parts of Africa can also rely on the outpost for support. MFA spokesperson Lu Kang was clever in justifying China’s decision based on “international responsibilities and obligation,” specifically China’s willingness to embrace its duty to “safeguard peace and stability of the region and beyond.”[68] In other words, China wants a military support facility not just for its own national interests and tactical needs but also for the good of the international community. Djibouti happens to be that appropriate convergence of supply and demand.

What the MFA will not comment on, however, is the significance of the outpost beyond its immediate logistical purposes. This paper believes that it will acquire a more noticeable military nature and evolve into a base as part of the grand strategic vision that China is beginning to develop for the region. Time will tell how exactly it unfolds.

Chinese Grand Strategic Vision for the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean

To start, there is no Chinese grand strategy for the Horn of Africa or the Indian Ocean. Neither place warrants a true grand strategy. China does, however, have a comprehensive military strategy as outlined in its 2015 defense white paper. The country is an aspiring global power that hopes to attain the large end of a more expansive international security presence with limited means. The Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean thus serve as two distinct tactical theaters in which China can implement its grand strategy. A better way to put it is to say that China has a grand strategic vision for what it hopes the two theaters will look like in the future—and since they are part of the same grand strategy, the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean should not be viewed as completely separate entities.

In the Horn of Africa, China is testing the waters through a trial-and-error process that has been successful so far. Its objective on the continent at large is to provide an alternative to Western influence and gauge the international response to an expanding Chinese presence. Economically, the Chinese have been active in Africa since the early days of the People’s Republic of China. That relationship, of course, has evolved from a purely political one—based on non-alignment with the superpowers at the time and winning goodwill from developing countries that have suffered similar fates of imperialism and colonialism—to a more commercial one. Chinese economic activities in Africa include trade, contracts, loans, foreign direct investments, and foreign aid. The first three categories are generally more pervasive and profitable than the latter two, but the line between loans and foreign aid is often blurry. For example, it makes sense to see discounted loans to African governments and debt forgiveness as a type of Chinese foreign aid. The abundance of Chinese economic interests in Africa also demonstrates that there is no single strategy. Instead, there are many commercial, state, and non-state actors involved, all with different and often competing interests. That said, through economics, China is challenging Western notions of capacity building with concrete infrastructure that has a direct impact on development. The Belt and Road Initiative that China unveiled in 2015 further encourages Chinese banks to lend and invest in Africa and Chinese companies to export their overcapacity to the continent.[69] East Africa in particular will benefit from the initiative because of its strategic location on the maritime silk road. Not all Africans may like the Chinese, but so far they have welcomed the inflow of Chinese capital. After all, no other country has or is willing to have a billion-dollar footprint in places like Djibouti.

With the military facility in Djibouti, expect to see a stronger Chinese commitment to security engagements as well, especially in the Horn of Africa. The country’s participation in Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations fits into international objectives of safeguarding strategic sea lines of communication and maintaining open seas for international trade, so China’s willingness to take part in these operations should be viewed in a positive light. A Chinese military foothold in one of the most conflict-prone regions of Africa also sends the signal that the government is now capable of responding to emergency situations and protecting its citizens. Incidentally, Wolf Warriors 2, a movie that aired in Chinese theaters this July, tells the fictional story of a Chinese hero who protects and evacuates Chinese civilians from an African country mired in civil war.[70] The movie is an exaggeration for theatrical and propaganda purposes, but its popular reception in China shows that the people are happy to see Chinese military personnel watching over citizens and stakes abroad. Beyond the protection of its national self-interests, China also wants to craft an image of itself as a responsible global peacekeeper. Since Xi committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force and $100 million to the African Union in 2015, China has been steadily increasing its involvement in international peacekeeping missions in Africa, mostly in the form of enabler, non-combat troops (think engineers and doctors).[71] China first deployed combat troops to South Sudan in 2014 under the mandate of civilian protection. With the support of the new logistics base, it would not be a surprise if China contributes more combat troops moving forward. Not only does this development benefit China’s international reputation, but it also provides great practice for Chinese troops to cooperate with other foreign military forces and gain combat experience on alien soil.

The most interesting challenge China will have to face in the Horn of Africa theater is its justification of the longstanding non-interference principle. In the past, China used to frown upon peacekeeping and admonish Western powers for interfering in the domestic politics of other countries. As a result, under previous presidents, China has kept a relatively low profile in international security and global affairs. With its participation in Gulf of Aden escort missions and UN peacekeeping missions in Africa during the Xi era, however, China seems to be seeking “more flexibility in practice while maintaining the principle.”[72] Chinese think tanks argue that since China is still operating under international mandates in both scenarios, it is upholding the non-interference principle. Nevertheless, should Chinese troops be called upon to rescue and evacuate citizens from emergency situations, such as a civil war in an African country, China will need to rethink and reapply its non-interference principle. At the very least, the Chinese base in Djibouti is a foreign policy milestone, because it confirms the country’s changing attitude toward its appropriate overseas security presence. This paper believes that the dilemma posed by non-interference is the reason Chinese leaders are insistent on labeling the outpost in Djibouti as a support facility, at least in the short run. All of the Chinese officials, scholars, and experts interviewed for this project affirmed that there is no intention of using the base for military purposes in the next 10 years. But non-interference is actually stirring up great debate within Chinese academic circles, and the outcome of that debate could influence Chinese actions in the future.

Given the maritime nature of the Chinese facility, the recent development in Djibouti is part of a Chinese grand strategic vision for the Indian Ocean as well. First, counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden is what the naval base primarily supports. This function gives the PLAN a convenient excuse to practice long-distance power projection across the Indian Ocean and fulfill its mission of far seas protection. China has been involved in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and its sailors have already grown accustomed to operating in the far seas without the comfort and support of a terrestrial base. In other words, the new military facility must push the PLAN to the next level—whether this means more naval or even amphibious operations in the Horn of Africa region or expanding the scope of the PLAN’s coverage in the Indian Ocean, only time will tell. If China is successful in operating the facility in Djibouti and working out a new principle to replace, or at least revise, non-interference, then Djibouti may well be the first pearl among the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. In 2014, an article by the Chinese Naval Research Institute listed the following seven places as candidates for a Chinese military outpost: Bay of Bengal; Sittwe, Myanmar; Gwadar, Pakistan; Djibouti; Seychelles; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.[73] The Chinese government ultimately picked Djibouti as the location for its first overseas military venture because of the reasons discussed in the previous section, but the other locations, all of which are on the shores of the Indian Ocean, could be next in line.

In fact, a westward strategy of expansion across the Indian Ocean has been a subject of interest among several prominent Chinese researchers.[74] As early as 2012, Peking University’s Wang Jisi has argued that the Indian Ocean offers a unique strategic opportunity for China. Given the number of obstacles that China faces in the Pacific Ocean, which include the South China Sea imbroglio and the active presence of international competitors such as the United States and Japan, Wang believes that the Indian Ocean theater gives China the chance to reinvent itself as a naval power, translate its economic presence into political influence and soft power, and work together with other countries, since no one has entrenched alliance systems set up in this part of the world yet.[75] Compared to the Pacific Ocean, which has become a zero-sum game between China and the United States, the Indian Ocean could even have room for Sino-American cooperation in tackling challenging problems such as terrorism and regional instability. Thus, from the westward expansion perspective, the base in Djibouti is a necessary foothold on the far side of the maritime journey to the west.

In the end, the Horn of Africa is inextricably linked to the Indian Ocean not just by the physical location and maritime orientation of the Chinese base but also by Chinese grand strategy itself. Under Xi, who exemplifies a more aggressive leadership style than previous Chinese presidents and who is not afraid to share his “Chinese dream” with the rest of the world, the country is more conscious of the need to devise a grand strategy that would balance the aspirations and responsibilities of a rising global power.[76] The Horn of Africa will teach China the difficulties of operating a base in a foreign country and give it the space it needs to deviate from a strict interpretation of the non-interference principle. The lessons it gains there will be applied to the rest of the Indian Ocean, where the country is eager to experiment with westward expansion. In this grand strategic context, then, the military base in Djibouti is just one small step that China is taking to create a blue-water navy and transform itself from a traditional land power concerned with only its periphery to a land-and-sea power that can operate globally.[77]

Conclusion

Joined together by a grand strategic vision, the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean theaters form the amphibious stage on which China is exploring its new role in global affairs. The good news is that the international community can expect to see a China more willing to take on global responsibilities. The flip side for the United States, however, is that the new direction in Chinese foreign policy means heightened competition in the developing world. This paper will end with a few preliminary thoughts on U.S.-China relations, though it calls on future researchers to build on the materials presented here and formulate an American strategy to respond to the situation.

First, Americans should acknowledge that China is reaching out to places in Africa and along the Indian Ocean where the U.S. does not have many strongholds. Rather than viewing this development as part of the Thucydides trap and reapplying a Cold War-like strategy of containment, however, the U.S. should not try to counter China at every turn. America could not have prevented China from building a military outpost in Djibouti, and it surely will not be able to stop that support facility from turning into a full-fledged base. Instead, the U.S. should exploit weaknesses in the Sino-Djiboutian relationship, such as issues with debt repayment, and look for opportunities to cooperate with China on security matters in Africa and the Indian Ocean. Both countries will have to learn to coexist in Djibouti and share limited resources in the region.

Ultimately, Djibouti itself may not be a foreign policy priority for either country, but with the construction of a Chinese military outpost, Djibouti has become a microcosm of great power politics and an important case study for understanding how China has developed a grand strategic vision for the world beyond its immediate geopolitical boundaries.


 

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Appendix

FIGURE 1: Map of the Horn of Africa and Surrounding Bodies of Water. (Source)

FIGURE 2: Map of Djibouti. (Source)

FIGURE 3: The Indian Ocean. (Source)

 

FIGURE 4: From Micro to Macro.

 


Endnotes

[1] Andrew Jacobs, “Joyous Africans Take to the Rails, With China’s Help,” New York Times, February 7, 2017.

[2] “Chinese Funded Ethio-Djibouti Water Project to Be Inaugurated Soon,” Xinhua, June 27, 2017.

[3] Erica Downs et al., “China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of China’s First Overseas Base,” Center for Naval Analyses, July 2017, 8.

[4] See Figure 1 for a map of the Horn of Africa and surrounding bodies of water.

[5] Downs et al., “China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of China’s First Overseas Base,” 25.

[6] “About MSCHOA and OP Atlanta,” Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa. Yuncyclopedia Brittanica. own University Press, 2014)nese views.

nced view of Chinese grand strategy in the Horn of Africa and I

[7] Alexander Metelitsa, “Oil Trade Off Yemen Coast Grew by 20% to 4.7 Million Barrels per Day in 2014,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 23, 2015.

[8] Laura Zhou, “Chinese Investment Boom Brings Changes to Djibouti,” South China Morning Post, April 17, 2017.

[9] “Djibouti,” The World Bank.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “A Surge in Ethiopia-bound Trade from Djibouti Increases Traffic and Prompts Reforms,” Oxford Business Group, May 23, 2016.

[12] “World Oil Transit Chokepoints,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 25, 2017.

[13] “The World Factbook: DJIBOUTI,” Central Intelligence Agency, January 12, 2017.

[14] Adam Bernstein, “Hassan Gouled Aptidon, First President Of Djibouti,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2006

[15] “The World Factbook: DJIBOUTI.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on January 21, 2016,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, January 21, 2016.

[19] “Jibuti: Renmin jiefangjun shouge haiwai jidi,” 吉布提:人民解放军首个海外基地 [Djibouti: The People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base], Fenghuang caijing 凤凰财经, April 11, 2016.

[20] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on January 21, 2016.”

[21] Yun Sun, “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy,” Brookings, 11.

[22] John Lee, “China Comes to Djibouti,” Foreign Affairs, April 23, 2015.

[23] James Jeffrey, “China Is Building its First Overseas Military Base in Djibouti — Right Next to a Key US One,” Public Radio International, May 3, 2016.

[24] Ben Blanchard, “China Formally Opens First Overseas Military Base in Djibouti,” Reuters, August 1, 2017.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Wang Lei 王磊, “Jibuti jidi: Zhongmei junshi hezuo de xinchuangkou” 吉布提基地:中美军事合作的新窗口 [Djibouti: A new window for U.S.-China military cooperation], Shijie zhishi qikan 世界知识期刊, August 21, 2017.

[27] “Gangmei: Zhongguo huozai 6 guojian haiwai junzhi jidi kuoda zishen shili fanwei” 港媒:中国或在6国建海外军事基地扩大自身势力范围 [Hong Kong media: China considers building bases in six countries to expand sphere of influence], Xinlang junshi 新浪军事, May 31, 2016.

[28] “Jibuti junshi jidi shi haiwai kuozhang diyibu? Waijiaobu huiying” 吉布提军事基地是海外扩张第一步?外交部回应 [Djibouti is China’s first step toward overseas expansion?: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responds], China.com, July 12, 2017.

[29] Minnie Chan, “Live-fire Show of Force by Troops from China’s First Overseas Military Base,” South China Morning Post, September 25, 2017.

[30] Joshua Berlinger, “Satellite Photos Reveal Underground Construction at Chinese Military Base,” CNN, August 1, 2017.

[31] Andrew Jacobs and Jane Perlez, “U.S. Wary of Its New Neighbor in Djibouti: A Chinese Naval Base,” New York Times, February 25, 2017.

[32] “Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa: From Crisis Action to Campaigning Special Study,” United States Army, July 2016.

[33] Jeffrey, “China Is Building its First Overseas Military Base in Djibouti — Right Next to a Key US One.”

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti,” Commander, Navy Installation Command (CNIC).

[36] Eleanor Albert, “China in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 17, 2017.

[37] Albert, “China in Africa.”

[38] Sun, “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy,” 14.

[39] Adem, China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa, 243.

[40] Sun, 1.

[41] Sun, “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy,” 1.

[42] Ibid., 9.

[43] Alexis Okeowo, “The Settlers,” The New York Times, July 10, 2014.

[44] Sun, 4.

[45] Adem, China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa, 219.

[46] Sun, “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy,” 12.

[47] Zhang Ying and Pan Jingguo 张颖与潘敬国, “Zhongfei ‘mingyun gongtongti’ de lishi chuancheng yu xianshi hanyi” 中非‘命运共同体’的历史传承与现实涵义 [The history and present-day meaning of Sino-African ‘common destiny’], Xiandai guoji guanxi 现代国际关系 (2017): 39-45.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Dombrowski and Winner (editors), The Indian Ocean and U.S. Grand Strategy, 1-3. All subordinate bodies of water such as the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea are included, with the exception of the Southern Ocean (Dombrowski and Winner, 3).

[51] Robert Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, 8.

[52] Ibid., 15.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “Zheng He,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[55] Kaplan, Monsoon, 290.

[56] Dombrowski and Winner, The Indian Ocean and U.S. Grand Strategy, 201.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Kaplan, 11.

[59] Ibid., 282.

[60] Kaplan, Monsoon, 289.

[61] “Document: China’s Military Strategy,” USNI News, May 26, 2015.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Andrew Erickson, “China’s Blueprint for Sea Power,” The Jamestown Foundation, July 6, 2016.

[64] Ibid.

[65] John Aglionby and Simeon Kerr, “Djibouti Finalising Deal for Saudi Arabian Military Base,” Financial Times, January 17, 2017.

[66] Jason Patinkin, “Somalia’s Pirates Are Back in Business,” Foreign Policy, April 9, 2017.

[67] Erica Downs et al., “China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of China’s First Overseas Base,” 22.

[68] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on January 21, 2016.”

[69] “Chronology of China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Xinhua, March 28, 2015.

[70] “Wolf Warrior II (2017),” IMDb, July 27, 2017.

[71] Courtney J. Fung, “China’s Troop Contributions to U.N. Peacekeeping,” United States Institute of Peace, July 26, 2016.

[72] Chen Zheng, “China Debates the Non-Interference Principle,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, August 1, 2016.

[73] Erica Downs et al., “China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of China’s First Overseas Base,” 40.

[74] Wang Jisi 王缉思, “‘Xijin,’ zhongguo diyuan zhanlüe de zaipingheng” ‘西进’, 中国地缘战略的再平衡” [Westward expansion, China’s rebalancing strategy], Huanqiu shibao 环球时报, October 17, 2012.

[75] Wang Jisi 王缉思, “‘Xijin,’ zhongguo diyuan zhanlüe de zaipingheng” ‘西进’, 中国地缘战略的再平衡” [Westward expansion, China’s rebalancing strategy].

[76] Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, February 22, 2011.

[77] See Figure 4 for an illustrative graphic.

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