A senior Chinese military official toured a Chinese warship docked in Djibouti during the weekend and met with the country’s president, according to China’s defense ministry, underscoring Beijing’s efforts to expand its military operations in Africa.
Djibouti, an East African country located near vital shipping lanes and terrorism hotspots in Yemen and Somalia, also hosts military bases for the United States and France.
Some security analysts have raised concerns that China, which is reported to be in talks about constructing a base in Djibouti, could be seeking to exert more influence in the strategic country—a move that could disrupt U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, inspected the guided-missile frigate Sanya on Sunday after it completed anti-piracy operations, the ministry said. Fang sat down with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh on Saturday.
"China attaches great importance to its relations with Djibouti and is willing to strengthen high-level exchange, enhance strategic mutual trust and deepen pragmatic cooperation between the two countries and two militaries," the ministry reported on its website.
The deputy commander of the Chinese air force and chief of staff of the navy joined Fang on his visit.
Guelleh said in May that he was conducting negotiations with China about adding a military base, which Beijing has yet to confirm. The two countries also announced a trade deal worth nearly $200 million, raising alarm in Washington.
The U.S. base Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti hosts more than 4,000 American military personnel and is the largest permanent U.S. military base in Africa. U.S. special operations forces, fighter jets, helicopters, and drones all operate out of the base.
"The trade deal between Djibouti and China has raised serious security concerns with regard to Camp Lemonnier," a senior U.S. official told the Telegraph. "There are fears that if President Guelleh gets too close to China then he may be tempted to impose restrictions on U.S. access to the base, which would seriously affect the West’s attempts to collect intelligence on Islamic State and al-Qaeda."
A Pentagon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on China’s outreach to Djibouti.
The United States has had a difficult relationship at times with Djibouti. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the rights abuses of Guelleh’s government, including authorities’ detention of political opponents and suppression of independent media. Guelleh has also violated the Djiboutian constitution by serving for more than two terms.
Additionally, the Washington Post reported in April that Djibouti’s civilian air traffic controllers put U.S. military pilots at risk by falling asleep on the job, leaving the flight tower, and being overly hostile to incoming planes. Four special operations crewmembers died in 2012 after a U-28 spy plane was denied a request to land and crashed.
Still, the United States has sought to maintain good relations with Djibouti so it can continue to conduct vital counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Guelleh in May, and Rose Gottemoeller, the top State Department official on arms control and international security, will visit the country this month.
China appears keen to exploit any cracks in U.S.-Djibouti relations. Beijing has disbursed $599 million to build two airports in the county, among other major infrastructure projects.
Wu Shengli, China’s naval chief, has also expressed a desire to build navy bases overseas, though Beijing has been reticent to publicly support such a policy.
China further demonstrated its interest in the continent in January when it deployed a 700-strong force of peacekeepers to war-torn South Sudan, where Beijing is heavily invested in the oil industry.