U.S. Wary of Its New Neighbor in Djibouti: A Chinese Naval Base

With no shared border, China and the United States mostly circle each other from afar, relying on satellites and cybersnooping to peek inside the workings of each other’s war machines.

But the two strategic rivals are about to become neighbors in this sun-scorched patch of East African desert. China is constructing its first overseas military base here — just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, one of the Pentagon’s largest and most important foreign installations.

.. “It’s like having a rival football team using an adjacent practice field,” said Gabriel Collins, an expert on the Chinese military and a founder of the analysis portal China SignPost. “They can scope out some of your plays. On the other hand, the scouting opportunity goes both ways.”

.. Beijing’s defense budget expected to reach $233 billion by 2020, more than all Western European countries combined, and double the figure from 2010

.. Half of China’s oil imports sail through the Mandeb Strait, the choke point off Djibouti that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

.. American officials say they were blindsided by Djibouti’s decision, announced last year, to give China a 10-year lease for the land. Just two years earlier, Susan Rice, the national security adviser under President Barack Obama, had flown here to head off a similar arrangement with Russia.

.. Djiboutian officials expressed little concern that two strategic adversaries would be sharing space in a country the size of New Jersey. It helps that the Chinese are paying $20 million a year in rent on top of the billions they are spending to finance critical infrastructure, including ports and airports, a new rail line and a pipeline that will bring desperately needed drinking water from neighboring Ethiopia.

.. many people viewed foreign militaries as a stabilizing force, given their country’s diminutive size, its lack of resources and the potential threats from neighbors like Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, where expansionist sentiments continue to burble.

.. “We don’t see any problem having the Chinese here,” he said. “They provide revenue and help play a deterrence to those who would love to annex Djibouti.”