China is expanding fast and wide in Africa. Its foray into Djibouti, a small but strategically located country in Africa, is a clear reflection of the Communist nation's foothold in the continent. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Support Base in Djibouti has become an increasingly important outpost in the Horn of Africa.
China began constructing its first People's Liberation Army (PLA) overseas base at Djibouti's Doraleh Port in March 2016. Djibouti is a strategic port on the mouth of the Red Sea with easy access to the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Recent satellite images indicate that the PLA has fast-tracked work at this overseas base in the last six months to probably increase Chinese influence in the African continent where China is a major stakeholder in all arenas, including the political.
The work at this base and port activities have continued through the entire pandemic. The construction is now at fever pitch, as seen in latest high-resolution satellite images.
The India Today's OSINT team analyses the progress of work at this largest overseas base of the Chinese PLA.
Possible New Pier Construction
The base was opened in 2017 but the piers are still under construction. China has planned to have nine piers at this base with four dedicated to PLA Navy, although exact details are not available till date.
The pier whose construction began in 2018 has now been completed with rails for heavy duty cranes on both sides.
A possible new pier is being constructed to the east of the completed pier, starting near the pump house of desalination plant. The completed length is almost 200m and width is about 10m.
In the latest satellite image of October 27, a previously constructed jetty for storage purposes supporting construction of pier is not seen.
This multipurpose port at Doraleh, Africa's biggest and deepest, was established by Chinese PLA as only a logistics base for humanitarian help and disaster relief.
However, soon it was realised that China sitting on the edge of Doraleh is able to monitor entire world's sea lines of communications which have to pass through the Bab el-Mandeb waterway that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Recent satellite images show a very fast pace of construction, especially during the pandemic time, at this seawater desalination plant.
New RO tanks have been fixed and an evaporator building has been constructed. A possible small bottling plant has also been added along with an intake pump house.
The storage tank has been connected and two small huts for water distribution have been constructed near it.
New construction activity has been noticed of the open hangars with construction material strewn around the place.
Large square-shaped pillars have been constructed along the ribs of the hangars. There are rebars kept between the pillars, suggesting the hangars are being extended in length.
These extensions are possibly for closing the hangars for providing environmental protection and conditioning.
This renovation of all seven open hangars indicates early induction of helicopter fleet at this base which is likely to be armed.
The Growing Foothold
China's hold has increased over small countries in Africa since the establishment of this base in Djibouti. China has been able to provide many small countries with military equipment and thus control even the political hierarchy in those countries.
The Chinese facility is barely 7km away from the United States' sole military base in Africa - Camp Lemonnier - established in 2001. In 2018, the US Department of Defense complained to the Chinese government about lasers being directed at aircraft from the base.
According to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, "This presents a risk for US military and intelligence operations in the region, and requires greater vigilance on the part of the US intelligence and national security community."
The base with more than 9m wide perimeter wall and four-layered security just for a logistics base created immense doubts amongst major stakeholders whose entire sea traffic passed through Bab el-Mandeb strait.
The heliport with capability to hold at least 24 large helicopters along with all kinds of resupply that would be needed by the PLA in any eventuality indicates that China has plan to have a strategic overseas base at Djibouti.
(Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd) is a consultant for India Today. A satellite imagery analyst, he served in the Indian Army for over 33 years)