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China’s first overseas military base in Africa

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With more such projects in the pipeline at least in Asia, China has opened its first ever over sees military base on October 31 in African country of Djibouti. 

Speaking to China’s Djibouti-based forces during a visit to a joint battle command center in Beijing, Chinese President Xi “got a good understanding” of the base’s operations and the lives of the soldiers there, China’s Defense Ministry said late Friday.

Xinhua said in its short report that the ships had departed from Zhanjiang in southern China “to set up a support base in Djibouti.” Navy commander Shen Jinlong “read an order on constructing the base in Djibouti.” It did not say when the base might formally begin operations.

Ships carrying Chinese military personnel for Beijing’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, have left China to begin setting up the facility, the state news agency Xinhua reported.  Troops serving at China’s first overseas military base, in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti, should help promote peace and stability, President Xi Jinping told them in a video chat, encouraging them to promote a good image.

China began construction of the base in Djibouti last year. It will be used to resupply navy ships taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, in particular. Xi “encouraged them to establish a good image for China’s military and promote international and regional peace and stability”, the ministry said.

This will be China’s first overseas naval base, although Beijing officially terms it a logistics facility.  China began construction of a logistics base in strategically located Djibouti last year that will resupply naval vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, in particular.

$180 billion spent

After months of anticipation since announcing plans for its first foreign base, China opened what it calls a logistical facility on August 1. The base will be used mainly to resupply ships moving through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and support humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in East Africa, China has said. Satellite photos, however, have led to speculation about a large underground area where unseen equipment may be stored, and the facility could shift the balance of power in the region.

Xinhua said the establishment of the base was a decision made by both countries after “friendly negotiations, and accords with the common interest of the people from both sides.”

The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia. The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese, and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.

China spent $180 billion on its People’s Liberation Army last year, according to the Pentagon report, though the report concedes “it is difficult to estimate actual military expenses, largely due to China’s poor accounting transparency.”

China’s official defense budget puts its expenditures at about $140 billion, but that budget fails to include major defense expenditures related to research and procurement of foreign equipment. The official Chinese defense budget has nearly doubled since 2007, from roughly $75 billion to $140 billion in 2016.

The base is part of China’s plan to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion plan to link China with 68 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe through trade deals and infrastructure projects. The initiative was first announced in 2013 and includes a Chinese presence around the east coast of Africa.

Economic power

Chinese President Xi Jinping is overseeing an ambitious military modernization program, including developing capabilities for China’s forces to operate far from home.  During his visit to the command center, Xi also instructed the armed forces to improve their combat capability and readiness for war, the ministry said. Xi said progress in joint operation command systems, especially in efficiency at the regional level, was needed and troops must conduct training under combat conditions.

Djibouti, which is about the size of Wales, is at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.  The tiny, barren nation sandwiched between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also hosts USA, Japanese and French bases.

Products that China wants to ship are based in the region, so it makes sense to expand the infrastructure to transport them. But the Djibouti facility is also a sign of China diversifying its engagement and avoiding restrictions on its presence. This might be the start of some more military, security-related bases

Currently, China mainly imports minerals and oil from Africa, but its long-term plan is to build factories on the continent and move some of its manufacturing there to take advantage of the cheaper labor and geographic position.

Pakistan singled out

There has been persistent speculation in diplomatic circles that China would build other such bases, in Pakistan for example, but the government has dismissed this. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are other nations China would be considering for similar military bases.

The report singles out Pakistan as one of those allies potentially willing to host Chinese troops and says China already has begun construction on a military base in the small east African country Djibouti, which lies along the Gulf of Aden. The Pentagon believes construction will be completed within the next year. “This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces,” the report reads.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying blasted the report, saying it disregarded facts and made “irresponsible remarks.” Speaking with reporters, Hua refused to comment on the potential future overseas bases, but said China is a force for safeguarding peace in Asia and “friendly cooperation between China and Pakistan does not target any third party.” “We hope the USA side will put aside the Cold War mentality, view China’s military development in an objective and rational manner, and take concrete actions to maintain steady growth of the military relationship between the two countries,” she said.

Djibouti is located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal. The tiny, barren nation sandwiched amid Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also hosts USA, Japanese and French bases.

China’s new military and logistical base in Djibouti has put other foreign powers on edge, but observers believe China’s strategy in the region is more about economic growth than military might.

Djibouti’s position on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean has fueled worry in India that it would become another of China’s “string of pearls” military alliances and assets ringing India, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Regional concern

China’s ambitions have fueled concern in India, which has watched its neighbor’s presence grow in the Indian Ocean. In a strategy known as the “string of pearls,” China already has military and commercial links with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.  India has always viewed the Indian Ocean region as its domain, and as China increasingly has more economic interest and a large military presence in the region, India seeking to play a larger global role is going to have deeper and deeper concerns about its presence.

The base in Djibouti is like a game changer in terms of the security environment, and India is worried about it. The speed with which China is executing its strategy in the region caught India off guard and may prompt countermeasures.

For China, the Djibouti base represents a shift to a more dual role in its global expansion — one that focuses on economics as well as military and logistics support. “We’re going to see more of these types of facilities in other places,” said the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Some of these aren’t going to look like bases. They’re going to look like dual use, civilian sort of access facilities, where also you can get access for military vessels as well.”

China’s expansion has also garnered the attention of the U.S., which has its own base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. France and Japan also have military bases in Djibouti. The United States will be concerned about the possibility of espionage, including electronic espionage, but will likely also be very closely observing the Chinese.

US remarks

China likely will try to expand its military presence across the world with military bases in Pakistan, Djibouti and elsewhere, as it sees its role in global affairs growing, according to a report released by the Pentagon.

The annual Pentagon report on Chinese military developments says China already is expanding its presence in foreign ports as a way to “pre-position the necessary logistics support” to sustain far away from the Chinese homeland.  “China’s expanding international economic interests are increasing demands for the Chinese Navy to operate in more distant maritime environments to protect Chinese citizens, investments, and critical sea lines of communication,” the report reads.

The Pentagon believes China most likely will try to set up additional military bases in countries where it has “longstanding friendly relationships and similar strategic interests.”

The report singles out Pakistan as one of those allies potentially willing to host Chinese troops and says China already has begun construction on a military base in the small east African country Djibouti, which lies along the Gulf of Aden. The Pentagon believes construction will be completed within the next year. “This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces,” the report reads.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying blasted the report Wednesday, saying it disregarded facts and made “irresponsible remarks.” Speaking with reporters, Hua refused to comment on the potential future overseas bases, but said China is a force for safeguarding peace in Asia and “friendly cooperation [between China and Pakistan] does not target any third party.” “We hope the U.S. side will put aside the Cold War mentality, view China’s military development in an objective and rational manner, and take concrete actions to maintain steady growth of the military relationship between the two countries,” she said.

Playing the game of Asia pivot to contain China as well as Russia, America is increasingly concerned about the Chinese expansionism in Asia. It can easily understand the rules of expansionism as it guides Israel in its expansionist agenda in West Asia, especially in Palestine.

Defense

Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race

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A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.

North Korea ramps up tensions

According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.

Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.

South Korea joins in on the missile testing

Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.

Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.

Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”

The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.

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Defense

HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds

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Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.

The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.

Shared goals

Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.

Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.

Shared enemies

In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.

HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.

Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.

The bottom line

Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.

To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.

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To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.

Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.

The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’  of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.

Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.

Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”

Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.

Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia  as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.

China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.

Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.

Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”

The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.

Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.

Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.

Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.

Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for  “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.

Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.

The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”

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