Major Communication Breakdown During Chinese Live-Fire Exercises in Djibouti – 11/28/17

On 23 November, the Chinese military conducted live-fire exercises with ZTL-11 amphibious assault vehicles at the Maryam Training Area in the Republic of Djibouti. These exercises were closely followed by Western militaries based in Djibouti. This is not because these militaries currently see the Chinese military as an immediate threat in the region. Rather, it is because they view the Chinese military as another force with which they have “to share a common operating space.” Western militaries therefore perceive that it is in their strategic interest to keep a close eye on any Chinese military activities on the continent.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that reports of what actually transpired during the live-fire exercises are beginning to trickle out. Yesterday, foreign military officials revealed that they were not only surprised that the Chinese military conducted the exercises outside of the normal hours at the range. They also felt that the Chinese military did not have the proper authorization to conduct the exercises in the first place. This led to intense speculation over what statement the Chinese military was trying to make with these exercises.

Earlier today, new information came to light that casts a shadow over these concerns. According to a foreign military official, the Chinese military was provided authorization to conduct these exercises by the Djiboutian Government. Afterwards, the Djiboutian Government attempted to notify the French military prior to the exercises. However, there was a “technical issue that delayed the reception of the fax.” So, the French Forces in Djibouti were not aware that the Chinese military had the authorization to conduct the exercises until the last 24 hours. This was problematic. The French Forces in Djibouti are ultimately responsible for overseeing the Maryam Training Area. So, other Western militaries were in the dark about whether the Chinese military had the authorization to conduct the exercises until this morning.

If the latest reports are true, then this coordination problem not only provides a powerful indictment of the current status of the range coordination process. It also exposes the day-to-day challenge of trying to coordinate the military activities of the many foreign military forces operating in Djibouti. It is therefore in the best interest of the Djiboutian Government and the overseas military bases in Djibouti to start working toward developing a new mechanism for addressing these problems. Of course, this will be difficult in light of the many competing interests of the foreign military forces in Djibouti. The Djiboutian Government and the overseas military bases in Djibouti will therefore need to be extremely creative when trying to work out a legally valid solution to these problems.

Michael Edward Walsh is the Director of the Overseas Military Bases in Africa Initiative at the Islands Society. Separately, he is a Research Fellow for African Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. This article is derived from his ongoing doctoral research on counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia.

Image Credit: compacflt via Flickr CC

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