The Chinese military said it needed a replenishment facility to supply food and fuel to its vessels participating in United Nations-led anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. That was the justification for leasing a large chunk of seafront land in the East African country of Djibouti.
But observers say Taiwan should be worried that the People’s Liberation Army has ratcheted up expansion of its first overseas camp that sits right on the Horn of Africa, after its August inauguration.
Recent satellite images show that legions of permanent structures have been erected on the PLA base, which lies to the west of Djibouti city and adjacent to the capital’s multipurpose port.
A command building, several warehouses and nine helicopter hangars along a 400-meter runway are easily identifiable, and a 300-meter port is also taking shape. Military analyst Andrei Chang believes the port will ultimately be able to service four to six guided-missile destroyers at the same time.
It’s said that a brigade from the PLA’s ground force, the Marine Corps, has been stationed there, raising suspicions that replenishment of vessels could go far beyond food and fuel and may also include ammunition or even personnel reinforcements.
Not many buy Beijing’s story that it is renting and fortifying a portion of Djibouti’s coastline simply to combat pirates in the nearby Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. Some observers say that when Beijing beefs up its military presence overseas in places of strategic significance, it has Taiwan on its mind.
The resource-scarce island, which Beijing regards as a renegade province of China, depends substantially on the narrow waterway linking the Suez Canal and the Arabian Sea for oil imports from the Middle East as well as trade with Europe.
In the event of a military showdown with Taiwan, it could take more than a month for the PLA to dispatch warships from ports at home to waters surrounding the Horn of Africa some 9,000 kilometers away to intercept tankers ferrying oil to the island. Yet such a deployment would be way swifter if made from the new naval base in Djibouti, from where just a handful of PLA corvettes or destroyers could seal off Taiwan’s oil and trade artery in no time.
Such a stratagem will be especially vital if the PLA loses its sea and air supremacy in the East and South China Seas to blockade Taiwan, should the United States and its Asian allies step in.
Yet others argue that it remains to be seen how Camp Lemonnier, a US Navy expeditionary base that is in close vicinity to the PLA camp, would respond in such a scenario should PLA warships interrupt freedom of navigation in neighboring waters.