A Fieldnote on How the American Military Views the Chinese Military in Djibouti – Michael Edward Walsh

The Chinese military on August 1 formally opened its first overseas military base in Doraleh, Djibouti. According to the Chinese government, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in Djibouti will be used to support peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Africa and the Middle East. However, there are strong indications that the base will also be used to facilitate surveillance activities across the region and beyond. The Chinese base therefore raises significant operational security concerns for U.S. military officials stationed at U.S. military installations in Africa and the Middle East. Some even worry that the Chinese base “could provide a front-row seat to the staging ground for American counterterror operations in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.” Nevertheless, officials stationed at Camp Lemonnier—the U.S. naval expeditionary base in Djibouti—do not appear to view the Chinese military as a strategic threat to the U.S. military in the Horn of Africa, and see it in a more nuanced light.

The Current Situation

Over the past three months, I have been conducting field interviews with U.S. military officials stationed at Camp Lemonnier as part of my doctoral research on counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Those interviews reveal that, rather than a strategic threat, those officials view the PLA as an opposing force with which the U.S. military has to share a common operating space. The U.S. military is therefore trying to find ways to increase cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. However, little progress has been made to date. To some extent, this is because Chinese military officials have been overly aggressive in their interactions with their U.S. counterparts. Until that changes, U.S. military officials express doubt that they can make much progress on achieving that increased cooperation in the Horn of Africa region.

The Short View

Over the past few months, U.S. military officials acknowledge that there have been a number of interactions between officials at Camp Lemonnier and Chinese military officials at the PLA base in Djibouti. However, these interactions have been strictly limited to the most senior officials. On the U.S. side, they have typically been limited to three senior military officials. Because of the aforementioned aggressive behavior, the U.S. military now requires two or more senior U.S. officials to be present during any interactions with their Chinese counterparts. In addition, according to the interviewed U.S. officials, Chinese military officials have also been responsible for a number of unspecified “probing attempts” against the U.S. base. These attempts have significantly increased since the first live fire military drills at the PLA base a few weeks ago. Based on these observations, U.S. military officials are doubtful that their Chinese counterparts are interested in promoting increased cooperation with the U.S. military in the Horn of Africa region.

The Long View

Based on my field interviews, it appears that U.S. military officials are genuinely committed to finding ways to promote increased cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. However, it also appears that the officials are increasingly frustrated by the way that Chinese military officials approach their interactions with their U.S. counterparts. It therefore appears unlikely that there will be a major breakthrough in military-military cooperation between China and the United States in the Horn of Africa region in the near-term. Nevertheless, such cooperation could be possible in the long-term if Chinese military officials demonstrate less-aggressive behavior.

Note: This article was first published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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