by Thomas J. Shattuck*
In early May, Djibouti, a small African country located at the critical juncture between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, made headlines for a surprising reason: the United States demarched the People’s Republic of China for shining military-grade lasers at American pilots while they were flying aircraft. These incidents mark just another chapter in China’s constant attempts to harass and aggravate American military personnel across the globe.
Djibouti is home to Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent American military base in Africa, which houses some 4,000 personnel. Originally controlled by the French, Lemonnier is now home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.
According to reports, around ten such incidents have occurred in the last few weeks, and in the most recent incident, two pilots flying a C-130 suffered minor eye injuries while trying to land at the American base. The injuries to the pilots are what sparked the official demarche, which is a formal diplomatic complaint.
On May 3, 2018, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said, “They are very serious incidents. . . . We have formally demarched the Chinese government and we’ve requested the Chinese investigate these incidents.” The U.S. had determined that the lasers originated from the Chinese base, which is only a few miles away from the American one.
However, the Chinese Ministry of Defense quickly responded with the following statement: “We have refuted the false accusations through official channels. The Chinese side has consistently abided by international law and the laws of the local country strictly, and is committed to safeguarding regional security and stability.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying doubled down saying, “You can remind the relevant U.S. person to keep in mind the truthfulness of what they say, and to not swiftly speculate or make accusations.”
Similar incidents have reportedly occurred in the Asia-Pacific, so it is hard to take the Chinese at their word on this matter.
Both the United States and China are signatories to the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which states, “It is prohibited to employ laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices.”
The Soviet Union allegedly used military-grade lasers against the Chinese during the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict.
Shining military-grade lasers at pilots and aircraft is particularly dangerous and can cause pilots to lose control of the aircraft, but that has not stopped the Chinese from breaching the agreement. Now, even though there is an agreement on not intentionally blinding people with military-grade lasers, the U.S. has issued a notice to pilots in the area “to exercise caution when flying in certain areas in Djibouti.”
The Wall Street Journal also reports that pilots and others in aircraft are wearing eye protection, and “American pilots also are checking their flight plans to ensure that flight operations don’t conflict with air operations by the Chinese military or other nations’ militaries in the vicinity, to ensure that they are not doing anything to provoke the incidents.”
AN EXPANDING CHINESE FOREIGN POLICY
In 2015, China began constructing its base on the coast of Djibouti. The construction—and subsequent opening—of the base marked a significant departure from Chinese foreign policy. Never before had the Chinese military established a permanent military base on foreign soil. Nevertheless, 2015 marked a new chapter in China’s new expansive foreign policy strategy. The base demonstrated a key part of President Xi Jinping’s desire to modernize and expand China’s military to help propel the nation to its rightful place in the world.
When announcing the construction of the base, Xinhua News Agency said, “The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia. The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.” A common talking point in 2015-17 was that the base would help China continue to support anti-piracy missions off of the coast of Somalia. It also has peace-keeping forces stationed throughout Africa.
The intentions sound noble, but taking a deeper look at the layout of the base and how China has conducted itself in East and South China Seas should cause nations to worry. “Jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways” could very well translate into whatever is convenient for China—especially if tensions escalate between any of its rivals like the United States or India, which is keeping a close eye on China’s “string of pearls.” As a part of its One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), China is developing ports, or “pearls,” that conveniently surround India along the Indian Ocean. The base in Djibouti is the first pearl with an official military purpose. There are even reports that China plans to open its next military base in Pakistan.
One satellite imagery analyst, Col. (ret.) Vinayak Bhat of India, explained the structure of the base shortly after it opened on August 1, 2017, when the Chinese military hosted a flag-raising ceremony. Bhat noted that it can accommodate a full brigade, had 4 layers of walls, a 1,300-foot runway, can house unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and underground storage facilities. He characterized it as a “massive fortress.” But having a state-of-the-art base with impeccable security is not necessarily surprising. However, what is surprising is that the base lacks a completed dock.
No dock would make it difficult for the Chinese military to fully utilize its only international “logistics support base.” Until a proper dock is built—which is currently under construction—China will have to rely on the dock at a nearby commercial port. According to Jane’s 360, construction on the dock began in May and reached 330 meters in length by May 20. The quick pace of construction demonstrates the critical importance of a dock for China’s future plans in the region.
A CROWDED DJIBOUTI
Though China only has a 10-year lease for the base, it is unlikely that its footprint in Africa will dissipate due to the continent’s importance to OBOR. This base marks the first step in China’s quest to assert its power far beyond its borders. It is one thing for China to claim sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea and use less-than-admirable tactics to maintain and to increase that claim. But pushing into Africa with a military base in Djibouti, which houses militaries from other countries like Japan and France, is showing the world that China’s foreign policy has changed.
It now can project its power thousands of miles away, and China is using the base to harass American troops abroad. While the Chinese military is still inferior to the U.S. military because it lacks a blue water navy and only has one antiquated aircraft carrier, the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Liberation Army Navy are setting the groundwork for its attempt to become a peer competitor with the United States in every corner of the globe.
Eventually, China shining a laser at aircrafts will be the least of American concerns.
*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.