Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, director of intelligence at the U.S. Africa Command, has accused the Chinese military of harassing American soldiers stationed in Djibouti. The country is home to China’s first foreign military base.
According to Berg, the Chinese tried to restrict movement in international airspace by blocking aircraft from flying over their military base. The Chinese deployed drones that were built to interfere with U.S. flight operations without any reason. Their forces also flashed lasers from the ground at American pilots, endangering lives. A few members of the Chinese military tried to covertly enter the U.S. base, an attempt that was successfully prevented.
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Just last year, the Pentagon formally lodged a diplomatic complaint with Beijing after two American airmen on the Djibouti base got injured by what is believed to have been Chinese-deployed lasers. However, the Chinese neither heeded the complaint nor acknowledged it. On the contrary, Beijing has countered that it was U.S. activities in the region that were causing discomfort to Chinese military personnel. They also accused America of carrying out espionage activities on their base.
Berg, who has served in the U.S. Navy for almost three decades, raised concerns about Africa’s relationship with China. She pointed to the fact that the Chinese have tripled their loans to the continent since 2012, thereby becoming the largest debt holders of several nations. This has given Beijing power over the affairs of these African countries. When it comes to Djibouti, China is its biggest lender. As such, the U.S. is worried that the African nation might be forced to make commitments to Beijing that go against American interests.
Officials from the African country have made it clear that they do not want any conflict between military bases operating in the country. “We are happy to have our friends here, but our intention is not to suffer from our generosity… Are different powers conflicting in Djibouti? They should not. It’s not in our interest. And it’s not in their interest either. The two superpowers have more to gain from the stability of this region than from creating unnecessary conflict,” Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, finance minister of Djibouti, said in a statement (The Washington Times).
China in Djibouti
The U.S. opened its base in Djibouti back in 2001 and currently has around 4,000 personnel stationed in the region. China set up its military base in 2017. Djibouti is located close to the Suez Canal, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Having a military base in the region is a signal to the international community that the Chinese are looking to be a global player.
“The United States and European powers have been the dominant external security actors in the Middle East but China is emerging as another noteworthy actor mainly in economic terms but now also very gradually in security terms… To be considered a global power, a country must be seen as a player in the Middle East… For China, the base has greater significance because it is China’s sole military foothold in the region — part of what some have dubbed its soft military footprint,” Andrew Scobell, a political scientist, said to South China Morning Post.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that Berg’s allegations “do not align with facts.” A prominent state media outlet also accused the U.S. of trying to defame China by making “false” complaints. That isn’t unexpected from the communist media.