Rising tensions between the US and China have led to diplomatic spats and military meetings.
But in Djibouti, where the US and Chinese bases are a few miles apart, their troops generally get on well.
“Although we have this competition, the facts are that we coexist,” said General Stephen Townsend.
Rising tensions between the US and China have led to: diplomatic quarrels and risky military encountersbut where US and Chinese troops are closest together, they manage to get along, the outgoing US Africa Command commander said Thursday.
Camp Lemonnier in Djibuoti is the United States military’s only permanent base in Africa. It’s also just a few miles from a base of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China’s only overseas military outpost.
China officially opened its base at the end of 2017. US military leaders greeted it with concern and have formally complained to China about operations there, but there have been no problems between their personnel in Djibouti, US Army General Stephen Townsend said at a Defense Writers Group event.
“Every time there’s a near-colleague competitor in the area, you pay attention to that and be more careful, but the truth is we’ve co-existed with the Chinese base there,” said Townsend, who took command. in July 2019.
“There’s really not much tension. They actually run into each other at various engagement activities there around Djibouti City, and in the past we’ve really helped each other,” said Townsend.
“There was a fire a few years ago in the city dump, south of Camp Lemmonier, and the Djiboutians asked for help,” Townsend added. “We responded and we found ourselves, our firefighters, fighting alongside Chinese firefighters, along with Djiboutian firefighters, to bring the fire in the city’s landfill under control.”
“So even though we have this league, the facts are that we coexist there,” Townsend told reporters.
Not disturbed, but watching closely
The US and China are not alone in Djibouti. France has had a military presence there for a long time – Camp Lemonnier was founded by the French Foreign Legion — and Japan opened its only overseas military outpost there in 2011, several years after Japan and other countries began conducting anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.
China also joined those anti-piracy efforts and continues to send ships to patrol the Horn of Africa. It Delivered its 41st escort task force to the region in May.
The task forces usually consist of: three to four ships deployed for three to four monthswho spent most of that time at sea, Thomas Shugart, a naval warfare expert at the Center for a New American Security, told Insider in June.
China’s fast naval expansion means it has sent more advanced ships. “They’re modernizing those ships, so they’re coming up with more combat capability, but that’s also something any navy would probably do,” Townsend said.
Chinese troops also participate in UN missions in Africa and are likely to gain experience there, but “as a military leader this doesn’t bother me greatly,” Townsend said.
China has focused on economic engagement in Africa — which U.S. officials have criticized as exploitative and sought to counter — rather than the military sphere and has so far shunned formal alliances, Townsend said, adding that it doesn’t have many “military cooperation to build military capabilities, apart from their efforts to provide some security assistance in some of those countries.”
Townsend and other US officials, however, are not optimistic about all of China’s military activities in Africa.
The US knows “for a fact” that China is looking for additional bases in Africa, which “has my attention because of the potential implications for US military forces and US security,” Townsend said. “We have not seen that other base emerge. We know they are trying and they are negotiating with different countries.”
Townsend has warned of China’s interest in Africa’s Atlantic coast, telling lawmakers in April 2021 that Beijing had “placed bets” from Mauritania to Namibia. The Wall Street Journal reports that in December that US officials had information indicating that China was planning to establish a naval base in Equatorial Guinea. In response, an American delegation was sent in February.
The Chinese “seem to have a little bit of traction in Equatorial Guinea, so we’re keeping an eye on that,” Townsend said on Thursday. That said, we didn’t ask Equatorial Guinea to choose between us in the West or China. What we’re doing is convincing them that it’s in their best interest to stick with all of us and not be one of them. choose over the other.”
US officials continue to monitor the Chinese base in Djibouti. It borders Bab al-Mandab Street, an important hub between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Townsend and others see it as a window into Beijing’s ambitions.
China recently inaugurated “a huge pier” there large enough to dock two aircraft carriers or an aircraft carrier and a large-deck amphibious vessel, Townsend said. “Why they need that capacity there, I don’t know. I suspect they are thinking very deeply about the future and their future role in that region.”
US Marine Corps Lt. Gene. Michael Langley, who has been nominated to take over Townsend, expressed similar concerns at his July 21 hearing.
“That’s a strategic bottleneck that must remain clear for freedom of trade,” Langley said of the waters around Djibouti. “That’s a strategic point that we should really be concerned about.”
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