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China sends troops to Djibouti to establish its first overseas military base

A ship carrying Chinese military personnel departs a port on July 11 in Zhanjiang, southern China's Guangdong province. Photo: AP

Chinese troops are headed to Djibouti to set up the country's first foreign military base in order to carry out its "international obligations", the state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the base will, in the words of Xinhua, "better serve Chinese troops when they escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, perform humanitarian rescue, and carry out other international obligations."

China is already Africa's largest-trading partner and in 2015, the government said it would invest $60 billion on infrastructure projects on the continent. Djibouti, which lies in the Horn of Africa, is a relatively stable nation and is also home to US and French military bases.

The Chinese troops set off from Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province. The Xinhua report did not say how many troops were headed to Djibouti or when the Chinese base would be operational.

An editorial Wednesday in the state-run Global Times stressed the importance of the new Djibouti facility to the Chinese military.

"Certainly this is the People's Liberation Army's first overseas base and we will base troops there. It's not a commercial resupply point... This base can support Chinese Navy to go farther, so it means a lot," said the paper.

"It's not about seeking to control the world," said the editorial.

The Chinese push into Africa is seen as part of a massive drive by Beijing to exert its influence in areas that it sees either as within its sphere of influence or capable of contributing to its rise.

Recently, it embarked on the Belt and Road" initiative in Asia, investing billions to develop regional trade routes. Beijing has also plowed massive investment into Latin America. But it is Africa where Chinese investment has seen the most impact. Beijing has built railways, ports, and roads in exchange for raw materials that have powered its economic and, consequently, political rise.

China has expanded its military ties across Africa in recent years. According to a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), cooperation with Africa on peace and security is now an "explicit part of Beijing's foreign policy."

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force — one fifth of the 40,000 total troops committed by 50 nations — China also pledged $100 million to the African Union standby force and $1 billion to establish the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.

More than 2,500 Chinese combat-ready soldiers and police officers are now deployed in blue-helmet missions across the African continent, with the largest deployments in South Sudan (1,051), Liberia (666), and Mali (402), according to the ECFR.

"Blue-helmet deployments give the PLA a chance to build up field experience abroad -- and to help secure Chinese economic interests in places such as South Sudan," said the ECFR report.

Africa is home to an estimated one million Chinese nationals, with many employed in infrastructure projects backed by the Chinese government.

"China's involvement in African security is a product of a wider transformation of China's national defense policy. It is taking on a global outlook ... and incorporating new concepts such as the protection of overseas interests and open seas protection," said the ECFR report.

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