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This is why the US is concerned about China's first overseas military base

Chinese military personnel departed a naval base in Zhanjiang on July 18, destined for Beijing's new base in the East African country of Djibouti.


China started construction on the base, which it officially calls a "logistics facility," in February 2016, and it has not said when the base might formally start operations.

The Chinese navy has been assisting anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden and peacekeeping missions in Africa for some time, but the base in Djibouti will be Beijing's first such facility overseas.

"The base will ensure China's performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia," state news agency Xinhua said. "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."

People's Republic of China, People's Liberation Army (Navy) ship PLA(N) Peace Ark (T-AH 866). Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe.

Djibouti, home to about 800,000 people, also has French and Japanese troops, is strategically located in the Horn of Africa, sitting on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to Egypt's Suez Canal and one of the world's busiest shipping corridors.

And the new Chinese base is just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, a major US special-operations outpost.

"We've never had a base of, let's just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be," US Africom Command chief Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said in March.

Camp Lemonnier, a US military base in Djibouti, is strategically located between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Google Maps)

"Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns, and I think that our base there is significant to US because it's not only AFRICOM that utilizes" it, Waldhauser said at the time. US Central Command, which operates in the Middle East, Joint Special Operations Command, and European Command are active there as well.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said July 12 that the Djibouti base was "primarily used for the better fulfillment of international obligations," and that, "China's defense policy is defensive in nature. This has not changed."

State-run media outlet the Global Times was less reserved, saying in an editorial on July 12, "It is certainly the PLA's first foreign naval base ... It is not a supply point for commercial use."

The base in Djibouti is just one project China has undertaken in the East African country.

Sailors aboard the Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao. (Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush.)

Chinese banks have funded at least 14 infrastructure projects in the country, including a railway connecting Djibouti and Ethiopia, valued at $14.4 billion. Beijing has made similar investments throughout the continent.

US officials, as well as countries in the region, have expressed concern about the capabilities the new base gives Beijing and what it may augur about Chinese ambitions abroad.

Related: China just deployed troops to its first overseas base alongside US outpost

The US Defense Department said in a June report that the Djibouti base, "along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China's growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces."

"China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries," the report said.

Chinese navy multirole ship Hengshui. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Other countries in South Asia — India in particular — are concerned about Chinese activity in the region and see the Djibouti base as another part of Beijing's "string of pearls," which refers to Chinese facilities and alliances among Indian Ocean countries, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

China is already heavily involved in the Pakistan port of Gwadar and is building a network of roads and power plants under a project known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Civilian ports that Beijing has helped build in places like Pakistan and Sri Lanka can also receive naval vessels, fueling suspicions that China aims to deepen its strategic capacities in the region.

India sees the Djibouti base as a potential hub for Chinese surveillance operations and has objected to China's planned shipping network with Pakistan, saying it cuts through disputed parts of Kashmir.

Analysts have also said New Delhi is worried by Chinese submarines, warships, and tankers present in the Indian Ocean. India has tracked Chinese submarines entering the Indian Ocean since 2013, and a 2015 US Defense Department report also confirmed that Chinese attack and missile submarines were operating in the Indian Ocean.

Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team from the guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin keep watch over the crew of a suspected pirate dhow. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor.

"The pretext is anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden," a Indian defense source told The Times of India in May. "But what role can submarines play against pirates and their dhows?"

"If I were Indian I would be very worried about what China is up to in Djibouti," a Western diplomat briefed on Chinese plans said in March 2016.

Other countries in the region have looked for ways to balance against what is seen as China's growing influence. Australia and India, along with countries like Vietnam and Japan, have considered informal alliances to bolster regional security in light of growing Chinese influence and doubts about US commitment under President Donald Trump.

Also read: Here's what the Pentagon thinks about those bases China keeps building around the globe

This week, the Indian, Japanese, and US navies started the Malabar 2017 exercise in the Bay of Bengal. The exercise, which this year features three aircraft carriers, is seen by some as a effort to check Chinese activity in the region.

China has criticized such military balancing and has dismissed suggestions that it plans to expand its footprint abroad. After the US Defense Department report issued in June, Beijing said it did "not seek a sphere of influence."

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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