China’s Mission Indian Ocean: Satellite images obtained by IndiNews indicate that China’s naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is now fully operational and supports Chinese warships stationed in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s base in Djibouti is its first foreign military base, built at a cost of $590 million and under construction since 2016. It is strategically located by the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait that separates the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and the Guard. Approach to the Suez Canal, one of the most important channels of international commerce.
“China’s Djibouti base” is built in a fortified manner, with layers of defense that appear almost medieval, like modern colonial fortresses, says HI Sutton, naval analyst at Secret Coasts. It is clearly designed to withstand direct attack.
Significantly, images from imagery provider Maxar show a Chinese Yuzhao-class landing ship (Typ 071) docked with a 320-metre-long berthing area located near an apron that supports helicopter operations.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd) says, “The base appears to be fully operational, though more construction work is likely to take place.” “They can positively dock ships on both sides of the breakwater. Although the width of the jetty is narrow, it is large enough to take a Chinese helicopter carrier.”
The ship, identified as the Changbai Shan, is a large 25,000-tonne ship designed to carry up to 800 troops and a combination of vehicles, air-cushion landing craft and helicopters. It is believed to have been accompanied by a front-line Chinese destroyer upon entering the waters of the Indian Ocean this year.
“The Type-071 landing ship is huge and can carry many tanks, trucks and even hovercraft,” says H.I. Sutton. “One of these fleets is the backbone of China’s amphibious assault forces, although even more impressive ships are now joining the fleet. Its size and capability means it is also used for logistics missions, transporting critical supplies for.”
The Yuzhao-class ships are designed to operate as the flagships of a Chinese task force engaged in a variety of operations ranging from amphibious strikes to humanitarian aid. The Chinese Navy has inducted five ships of this class along with three more ships in various stages of commissioning.
The images of a fully operational base in Djibouti come at a time when China has docked the 25,000-tonne satellite and ballistic missile tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. Sri Lanka allowed China to dock the ship to refuel after New Delhi initially asked Beijing to defer its arrival following New Delhi’s concerns.
“With a robust tracking, sensing and communications relay system, the Yuan Wang 5 is definitively capable of locating foreign satellites, air assets and missile systems. This allows the vessel to support Chinese military missions away from home, ‘ says Damien Simon, a senior researcher. With Intel Lab that is tracking the speed of the ship as it enters the Indian Ocean.
“The vessel’s presence in the Indian Ocean region allows it to monitor space events located off the Chinese mainland, while potentially providing extended real-time communications networks to its overseas bases and ground assets, such as deployments in Djibouti, Africa. in peacekeeping and anti-piracy maritime missions.”
For India, China is likely to be able to directly track key satellite assets. “With the current India-China border crisis with no immediate solution, the deployment of the vessel could potentially allow for surveillance of Indian reconnaissance assets that have reportedly been reported around border surveillance, terrorist infiltration detection and counter-insurgency operations. The surveillance mission was assigned.”
China’s presence in both Sri Lanka and Djibouti is closely linked to its economic investments in both countries under its long-standing Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing owes most of Djibouti’s debt which reportedly amounts to more than 70 percent of the African nation’s GDP and has effectively taken over the Hambantota port through the creation of a joint entity with Sri Lanka on a 99-year lease. This comes after Colombo was unable to repay $100 million annually for a $1.7 billion loan taken to build the port, the first phase of which was completed in 2010.
Former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash says New Delhi should have no illusions about China’s maritime intentions or capabilities. “It is now 14 years since they established a permanent patrol off the Horn of Africa. Initially there was a lot of doubt about their ability to maintain a distant presence. But they have shown they can do so kept on for six to nine months.”
China’s presence in Djibouti is part of a broader plan to establish its presence in the Indian Ocean, directed not only at the US Navy, which has major bases in the Persian Gulf, but also in the Indian Navy, which The next largest in the area. The port of Gwadar in Pakistan will also be important for any further expansion in the region.
“What we are seeing today is the manifestation of a well-planned, well-thought-out strategy to spread their maritime influence,” says Admiral Prakash.
The strategy has already seen China operating nuclear-powered attack submarines in the Indian Ocean and could also see carrier battle groups operating in these waters, a reality to which top US Navy commanders have warned has given.
Asked about this in 2017, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., then commander of the United States Pacific Command, told INDINEWS, “There is nothing to stop them from sailing in the Indian Ocean today.”