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China Breaks Ground On Naval Base In Africa


China is breaking ground on what may be its first major overseas military base. The location is Djibouti, on the coast of Africa, at the mouth of the Red Sea, looking across at the Arabian Peninsula. - in other words, a very strategic location. It is the same port city where the U.S. has its own major base in Africa that's been used to gather intelligence for the last 15 years. For more on China's military ambitions and why it shows in African cities that launch them, we're joined by our correspondents in Shanghai and Nairobi. That would be Frank Langfitt and Gregory Warner. Good morning.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Good Morning, Renee.


MONTAGNE: And so let's start with you, Gregory. Djibouti - explain a little bit more why all these countries are there, because it's not just the U.S.

WARNER: Sure. No, it's not. I mean, Djibouti has an amazing location, as you said, but it doesn't have much else, and that's important. If you drive through the countryside, as I have, and you have to keep the AC on full blast, you'll basically pass mile after mile of just dusty, brown volcanic rock, you know, an occasional camel, a mosque carved out of stone, but not farms. Most of the food is imported. There's no oil, no natural resources. But Djibouti has two major advantages from a foreign military point of view. They have a very friendly, peaceful government, and they have this location on a busy shipping route next-door to conflicts in Somalia and Yemen - a short flight to the Middle East without having to be based there. And so the U.S. has its base there - its only permanent base in Africa - in Djibouti. France, Spain and Japan all have bases. And all this is on the invitation of the Djiboutian government, which really sees this as a key pillar to its economic growth.

MONTAGNE: Well, Frank, now how would China use it?

LANGFITT: Well, China, first of all, just to point out, they don't call this a military base. They call it an oversees logistics base because they're very sensitive to the way that they're seen right now globally. But basically, every analyst that I've talked to call this a naval base. And what it would allow them to do - they'd be able to get everything from instant noodles to fuel. It allows them to dock ships well beyond China, which is harder to do in foreign ports. And this allows China to keep ships out longer. It's also, ultimately, really about projecting naval power and taking a bigger role further from home. And clearly what they're doing here with this base is putting down a marker on China basically having a lot more global military engagement.

MONTAGNE: Well, China is very involved in the continent of Africa, so what else does it get from this?

LANGFITT: Well, a lot of people see this as military catch-up. I mean, keep in mind, China's now the second-largest economy in the world, but its military hasn't kept pace with all of that economic growth and all of their interests. So for instance, in this part, you know going up towards Suez Canal, there's a tremendous amount of energy going through this area. Chinese Navy ships can be around there to protect Chinese tankers. China's also building what's called a one belt, one road. It's a big maritime and a land-based trade route. They want to add what one analyst I talked to called military steel to that road. They're also anti-piracy in this area, as well counterterrorism. They also need to really protect citizens. There have been kidnappings in Sudan and in Sinai, so there's been domestic pressure to protect citizens. And Xi Jinping, you know, president, he wants to restore China to be a great power. And you can't really be seen as a great power if you can't protect your citizens overseas.

MONTAGNE: And, Greg, how are Africans reacting to this?

WARNER: Well, the Djiboutians are thrilled. I mean, they're getting $20 million a year in rent for this naval base. But Africa, as a whole, I think has been demanding that China become more of a long-term partner. And China's been responding to that, showing that it's not just here to build roads and airports, but it's building jobs, building security. And so we see a number of uncharacteristic moves by China in the last few years - first, dispatching a battalion of peacekeepers to a conflict in South Sudan. We see a tremendous investment in media on continent to tell that China story to Africans and more exchange programs for African students and engineers to go to China, something that the West used to offer but has decreased since 9/11. So China's naval base, while serving China's purposes first, is also part of that message, I think, to Africa, saying we're here for the long-term.

MONTAGNE: And as we said, the U.S. also has a base there, has had for some years. What does that mean for the U.S.?

WARNER: Well, six weeks ago, the deputy secretary of state estate, Tony Blinken was in Djibouti talking to the Djiboutians about this very issue. Everyone wants to know how big this base is, is going to be, how many troops. Is it a logistics hub, or is it something more? And there is also some concern about the proximity of a Chinese base so close to a U.S. base that is mostly concerned with drone flights and communications, exchanging intel about the various fronts on the war on terror. So could this new base allow for the monitoring of those communications? Or on the flip side, does this mean that China will start to shoulder more of the burden of fighting terror looks alongside the West?

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner, speaking to us from Nairobi, and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Thank You both very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Renee.

WARNER: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner
Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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