For four decades since 1949, Chinese government vowed not to send a single soldier abroad during the peacetime. This statement sounds credible because the leadership in Beijing has followed the tenet of “never becoming a superpower”. Yet, China has been changed with the change of time after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In 1992 Chinese leaders agreed to send its military detachments abroad as peace-keeping mission if it is endorsed by the United Nations. Since then, China has become the largest peace-keeping troops-provider among the P-5 of the UN Security Council.

Twenty years later, China’s armed forces have been actively involved into military diplomacy with a belief in the responsibilities of the armed forces of a major power, referring to Chinese participation in peace-keeping, anti-piracy, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, etc. Clearly, China is eager to project its image as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global prosperity and a defender of the status quo. During the latest military parade in China, President Xi Jinping made it plain that since the world peace must be preserved by force and faith as well, Chinese military will continue international military exchanges and cooperation to cope with global security challenges.

As an emerging power and the second largest economy of the world, it is reasonably argued that Chinese military warships and aircrafts, as those of other militaries, have the same rights to navigate in and overfly non-territorial waters. Considering all this, on July 11 a ceremony was formally held when Chinese military “support base” in Djibouti was operated in the base's barracks. The ceremony marked the first time that China has opened a military base overseas and it will be conducive to China fulfilling its international commitments such as humanitarianism aid and escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. Now the question is why China takes Djibouti as its overseas base?

Strategically speaking, Djibouti is situated in the “Horn of Africa”, a key hub connecting Asia to Europe through the Red Sea. In addition, it is historically known as the “oasis in a desert of conflict” for it is stable while the countries around it have been rampant due to poverty, civil war or border disputes. The ruling elites of Djibouti have allowed other countries to establish a military base in their land to protect the Gulf of Aden from piracy. It also provides a sea port for Ethiopia which makes it an important land mark. Djibouti has been surely favored since it provides these bases on a lease. It is reported that China alone pays $20 million per year on rent for its base. The rent paid by foreign countries is crucial for a country which has 42% living below poverty while 48% labor force remains unemployed. As it argues that Djibouti is one of the friends China has made alongside with other African states which have great potentials to China’s development and the world peace.

Internationally, as China has experienced a rapid economic growth over the past decades, its military has supposed to take more responsible role to protect the growing overseas assets and citizen’s lives globally. China’s construction of a naval base in Djibouti may not be surprising as it is one of the major attempts to protect its economic interest in a highly significant sea route. As a matter of fact, the United States, Japan and other EU member states had already established military presence in Djibouti but the same western powers will find China’s presence concerning. Equally, Djibouti plays a key role in China’s vision of Maritime Sea Route, a major part of Belt and Road Initiative. By 2008, 40% of all Chinese import was using this waterway to get to China and at present with new projects emerging these waterways are getting more vital to China’s security, for it is more proactive to be involved into fight against piracy, peace-keeping mission and counter-terrorism that have probably helped China secure a good image in the international society. In practice, China needs its army to be present in around that region to protect its investment in Africa. Djibouti is a perfect place as it is both stable and is in a strategic location. In addition, the military bases created by other great powers make it hard for them to raise direct fingers on China.

Is China aware of the potential challenges ahead? Yes, this is one of the reasons for China to prefer calling its base in Djibouti “support facility” rather than a normal base like other powers have. But beyond Djibouti, China has steadily worked on improving its image in the African continent en bloc. To that end, China has invested in Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway ($490 m), Doraleh Multipurpose Port ($390m), Ethiopia-Djibouti water pipeline ($322m) and many other projects from which Djibouti and its neighbors can be easily benefitted. President Omar remarked that China is the only country investing in all areas with al generous terms and is now recognized as the “lender of last resort” in Africa. Due to this, China’s presence in Djibouti acts as a model to display the win-win relationship for both sides. True, China has abode by the tenet of non-intervention into others’ domestic affairs which is opposed to the approach of the United States and its allies demanding the change of regime in the so-called autocratic or “failed” states. For example, some of U.S. Congressmen have required the White House to cease support to Djibouti as long as the current government is still in power.

However, more pressing challenge comes from the ruling power, such as the US, which has perceived the rising power like China with a view to change the status quo. American scholar Graham Allison’s “Thucydides trap” has been widely accepted simply because some people have thought of the rise of China in the way of the rise of Germany one century ago. It is arguable that China could learn the lessons from the case of Germany at the turn of the 20th century when the Kaiser wanted most was international recognition of Germany’s greatness and, above all, of its power. Today China has pursued its centenary dream of being a great and respected power. The dream itself has nothing wrong with it, but China must be aware of defining that term or its relationship to the Chinese core interest.

In foreign affairs, no state should base its foreign policy on an intellectual vacuum, hollow but truculent rhetoric and the lack of any sense of direction. After all, there are no diplomatic shortcuts to greatness, except following mutual benefits, mutual respects and relative security. Given this, China’s base in Djibouti is rooted in its rational and thorough calculation of the power and it indicates that China under the current leadership seems to move on the right route.

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.

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