The former French colony of some 830,000 people is already home to a U.S. military base that supports counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
Chinese officials stopped short of calling the facility a military base similar to those maintained by the U.S. overseas.
Spokesmen for the foreign and defense ministries on Thursday said the governments were conducting negotiations on building a “support facility” for Chinese naval ships operating in the region.
“This facility will better ensure that the Chinese military can carry out responsibilities such as international peacekeeping, naval escorts in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, and humanitarian assistance,” said Col. Wu Qian, a defense ministry spokesman.
China has often cited its lack of foreign bases as evidence of peaceful intentions, but has been rapidly expanding its military capabilities in recent years to defend its regional territorial claims and project power far into the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, announced plans this week to establish a joint operational command structure by 2020 as part of his efforts to create a modern fighting force capable of operating overseas as well as defending borders, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
U.S. defense officials said they have been aware of negotiations between the Djiboutian and the Chinese governments since at least May.
Pentagon officials are wary of Chinese interests in the country, but note that the U.S. base there is located on an airfield, and the Chinese are focused for now on building a port facility some distance away. A senior defense official said this month that the Pentagon was confident it would maintain a long-term relationship with the Djiboutian government for its operations at the airfield at Camp Lemonnier but it was cognizant of the security concerns as various nations, including China, focused on Djibouti for military interests.
“We definitely have concerns and parameters that were communicated in terms of how we think they should manage Chinese or anyone else entering into what is already a fairly congested space,” the senior official said.
Beijing faces mounting public pressure to protect its people overseas, especially after last week’s killing of four Chinese citizens by militants in Syria and Mali, and the evacuation of Chinese residents from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in March.
China has also contributed naval ships since 2008 to international antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden—a main shipping route for Chinese oil imports—and pledged this year to add to the 2,600 peacekeeping troops it already has in Africa.
Andrew Erickson, an expert on the Chinese military at the U.S. Naval War College, said the Chinese facility would likely be expanded to include an airfield big enough for large transport planes.
He said China had likely chosen Djibouti because it provided the most secure and politically stable location near the largest number of key Chinese maritime and terrestrial interests in the region, including the supply routes for its oil imports.
“While China will not formally call the facilities a ‘base’ soon, it will likely function in a manner that brings it awfully close to being one in all but name,” he wrote in a blog post. “China has for decades proudly proclaimed its lack of military facilities on foreign soil, so seeking long-term military access at a quasi-base level is a massive about-face…China is poised to cross the Rubicon.”
Chinese ships conducting antipiracy patrols off Somalia since 2008 have struggled getting fuel and other supplies, as well as rest for their crew members, the Chinese spokesmen said.
Djiboutian officials couldn’t be reached to comment, but the president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was quoted in French media in May saying his government was in talks with China about a base.
Djibouti hosts U.S., Japanese and French troops, with about 4,000 U.S. and allied personnel based at Camp Lemonnier, headquarters of the U.S. Africa Command’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
Given Djibouti’s strategic location and the demand from several countries for a presence there, the senior U.S. official expressed concern that if Djibouti didn’t “manage” the situation well, it could become problematic.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that this is a configuration that can work for each of us in our interests,” the official said.
The official said the Djibouti government seemed amenable to accommodating those U.S. concerns, and hadn’t tried to provide China with land already promised to the U.S.
Army Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said last week that China had signed a 10-year contract for its facility in Djibouti, according to the newspaper The Hill.
“They are going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. He said the base would allow Chinese forces to “extend their reach” but for now their activities in Africa didn’t appear to be provocative, according to the newspaper.
The Chinese announcement follows a visit to Djibouti this month by Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and a member of the 11-man Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces. China formally outlined its expanding military ambitions in May, saying its army would “adapt itself to tasks in different regions” while its navy would shift focus toward “open seas protection.”
Gen. Fang met President Guelleh and inspected a Chinese warship picking up supplies in Djibouti while participating in antipiracy patrols, according to Chinese state media. Gen. Fang was accompanied by deputy Chinese air force chief Zhang Jianping and visited an unidentified air base in Djibouti, according to those reports.