Why China’s First Foreign Military Base is Stationed in Djibouti

By Ilyanna Garcia-Alicea ’22

The PLA's newest base is equipped with several military branches and warfare facilities (Photo Credit: CNN)

In 2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed ships from the South Sea Fleet to officially open China’s first overseas military base in Doraleh, Djibouti. While this may sound obscure, Djibouti—a nation smaller than the state of Massachusetts—is also home to military bases of the United States, France, Italy, and Japan. This plan was approved by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013 in an effort to enhance China’s global influence and security strategy. It has constituted a significant change in foreign policy and international affairs for China as the once-isolationist state is expanding its reach with the Belt and Road Initiative and, now, an international military presence.


PLA’s Support Base in Djibouti has become a growingly significant outpost in the Horn of Africa since its construction. The strategic location of the base provides insights into Chinese regional machinations—the $4-8 trillion Belt and Road Initiative has significant ties to East Africa. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti are significant parts of the Initiative, serving as the connection between Southeast Asia and Europe. Unlike other countries, China has made the decision to move slowly and carefully while increasing their economic footprint, in order to avoid challenging similar military forces throughout the region. The base itself was classified as a “logistical facility” by China’s government, limiting the number of missions allowed to be carried out by armed forces on the base.


China claims that the majority of the work done on the base concerns humanitarian relief and international security, focusing primarily on UN peacekeeping operations. Despite this, military personnel from the U.S. allegedly claim that China directed harmful lasers at multiple U.S. planes from their military base. China has denied these allegations.


While China’s intentions regarding foreign affairs have been made clear, reasoning behind the location of the base is still up for debate. Djibouti’s prime location in the Horn of Africa also offers China the ability to observe and defend commerce passing through the Red Sea, which is one of the highest-volume commerce regions of the world with the Suez Canal offering the link between Asia and Europe.


Despite China’s assertions, Djibouti’s PLA base has carried more operations than they like to publicize. The base is now equipped with multiple military branches, including naval and marine forces. It is also equipped with warfare facilities, which were installed as preparation for possible security breaches and threats.


The implementation of China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti has brought much more intelligence and information to China and its government. Despite movement being slow, China is building greater power with minimal tension between them and other foreign armed forces. It is to be expected that China will eventually expand its power to other foreign countries, but for now, China will continue to expand its intelligence through missions and operations in Djibouti.