According to media reporting, Chinese military officials maintain that the purpose of these exercises was to put their strategies to the test. They also point out that these exercises are consistent with their stated commitment to ensure that their soldiers stationed in Djibouti conduct regular military exercises on par with their colleagues stationed back home. Meanwhile, Chinese military experts suggest that these exercises were not just a way to showcase the Chinese military on the world stage. They may also be a prologue to more complex drills to be carried out later this year.
Any live-fire exercises by the Chinese military will be closely followed by Western militaries in Djibouti. This is not because Western militaries see the Chinese military as an immediate threat in Eastern Africa. Rather, it is because Western militaries view the Chinese military as “an opposing force” with which they have “to share a common operating space.” It is perhaps not surprising then that reports of what actually transpired during the live-fire exercises are beginning to trickle out. For example, a foreign military official recently revealed that the Chinese military was observed using the range outside of their scheduled permit for use. According to the foreign military official, this may have been an intentional affront to the French military who manages the ranges. If so, then the Chinese military may have been trying to make the statement that they have effectively replaced the French military as the dominant military force in the country.
In an opinion article for the Global Times, Su Tan suggests that last week’s live-fire exercises aroused concern because of “persistent speculation over China’s intentions.” Unfortunately, the Chinese Government has done very little to assuage concerns over the intentions of the Chinese military in this part of the world. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army Security Base in Djibouti remains shrouded in secrecy since it opened in August. And, the Chinese military has been aggressive in their interactions with their American counterparts since their first live-fire exercise in September. In this context, last week’s live-fire exercises were bound to fuel further speculation over China’s intentions in the region. The reported use of the range outside of their scheduled permit of use only adds more fuel to that fire.
Michael Edward Walsh is a Research Fellow for African Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. This article is derived from his ongoing research project on counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia.
Note: This article was re-distributed by the DefenceWeb – Africa’s Leading Defence News Portal.
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