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China digs in Africa with an eye on its coastline for military bases

A file image of a navy personnel helping the Chinese evacuees who arrived in Djibouti from conflict-ridden Yemen (Xinhua/Pan Siwei/IANS)

China is digging in Africa with an eye on setting up military bases both along the Indian Ocean in the east and the Atlantic in the west.

China has already established its first military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa close to strategic sea lanes that radiate from here in multiple directions towards Asia and Europe. 

But a senior US military commander told Associated Press in an interview that China is now also scouting for another base along Africa’s Atlantic Ocean coastline in the west, with an eye on the US.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa command said that in its search for a naval base, China has approached several countries stretching from Mauritania to south of Namibia.

Other military sources told AP that Beijing is also on the lookout for a naval base in the Gulf of Guinea.

China Africa

Townsend said Beijing was looking to establish a large navy port that could host submarines or aircraft carriers along Africa’s western coast.

“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,” he observed.

The General said that the Atlantic coast concerned him greatly, because of its proximity to the US west coast. In nautical miles, a base on Africa’s northern Atlantic coast could be substantially closer to the US than Chinese military facilities at home in the Pacific.

But Washington’s other partners in the Indo-pacific QUAD—India, Japan and Australia, would be even more concerned about Chinese search for basing areas along the Indian Ocean coast, starting in Africa and heading in the direction of Myanmar.

Townsend said that China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti can station as many as 2000 military personnel at the base, including hundreds of Marines.

“They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armoured combat vehicles. We think they will soon be basing helicopters there to potentially include attack helicopters,” said Townsend.

Nikkei Asia is reporting that the Chinese base in Djibouti is being expanded to dock aircraft carriers and other big amphibious warships. 

According to Nikkei, the facility is now also capable of handling China's new Type 075 amphibious assault ships. These vessels have large decks that can accommodate aircraft with short-take off and vertical-landing capabilities.

The first Type 075 was commissioned last month in Hainan at a ceremony that was attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The second ship of this class is expected to be commissioned later this year, while another one was launched in January. 

The expansion of the Djibouti base comes at a time when the QUAD pushes for a "free and open Indo-Pacific," making the Indian Ocean a focal point of the great power competition between China and the US.

East of Africa, Chinese companies have been developing and operating other Indian Ocean deep water ports including Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar. These are on surface only commercial ports, but analysts say that it is possible to add a dual use military dimension to them.