Relative to the global maritime reach of the United States, China is still very much in the early stages of building up its maritime logistics network. Though the Chinese navy already deploys the second-largest underway replenishment fleet in the world, Chinese warships lack the U.S. Navy's access to a vast number of friendly ports with considerable replenishment and maintenance capabilities. These logistics points greatly enhance both U.S. peaceful and wartime operations. As the Chinese grow into their great power status and seek to protect their interests across the globe, they, too, will look to build up both their underway replenishment fleet and their logistics port network.
Establishing resupply and logistics points abroad is a vital component of China's attempts to expand its global reach. China already maintains a constant naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden as part of its contribution to the U.N. anti-piracy mission, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry says is its primary motivation for setting up the new naval installation.
Since the U.N. mission began in December 2008, Chinese ships have docked in Djibouti more than 50 times. The new base will provide a more comprehensive resupply point for the constant stream of warships traveling back and forth from China.
However, China's interests and involvement abroad extend far beyond its anti-piracy efforts. For instance, the new installation could be a crucial link in its logistics chain supporting U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa as well as any future Chinese interventions on the African continent. The installation in Djibouti, likely to be located at Obock on the country's northern coast, may also extend China's reach further into the Indian Ocean, and China could stage maritime patrol aircraft there.
Indeed, Djibouti has already proved critical to Beijing. When China staged a rescue operation to remove its citizens and others from the conflict in Yemen in April, Chinese personnel took the evacuees to Djibouti. Other significant powers, including the United States, France and Japan, also maintain a presence in the country.
China has traditionally downplayed the military aspect of its presence in foreign ports. Activity has typically focused on infrastructure development and trade. Frequent visits by Chinese naval vessels are portrayed as just that: visits, rather than the establishment of a logistics support network that already spans the Indian Ocean. But as the Chinese increasingly deploy their ships abroad, Beijing is slowly becoming more willing to recognize and publicly acknowledge the military component of its overseas moves. This is well demonstrated by the latest Chinese defense white paper, which lays out how the Chinese military will manage its growing international role.
As the Chinese stage more naval forays, they will need more established logistics bases rather than ports of call. Logistics bases with a strong Chinese shore presence allow for more maintenance, potential munitions and spare parts storage, crew rest facilities and aviation facilities. The Djibouti base will likely fall within this category, giving the Chinese navy broader logistics capabilities.