The People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base – in the east African state of Djibouti – has just celebrated its 100th day since it was inaugurated on August 1, the PLA’s establishment day.

Beijing has been tight-lipped about the military nature of the base or what it really wants to do with the outpost sitting on the Horn of Africa. It even avoids using the word “base” in its official announcements, other than saying the facility is only be used for humanitarian purposes and supplying military and civilian ships. 

A PLA Navy spokesman noted in a briefing that the Djibouti facility was set up to provide food, medicine and other stock to Chinese navy vessels assigned to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters for anti-piracy and escort missions, a United Nations-led international operation which China has been part of since 2008.

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A flag-raising ceremony at the PLA base in Djibouti. Photo: PLA Daily

The facility was also aimed at assisting China’s peacekeeping troops in South Sudan, Congo and Mali, and serving as a transit point for overseas Chinese when they are evacuated from the tumultuous region, he said.

But Beijing’s assurance has failed to quash speculation that the Chinese military is expanding its reach to back interests far beyond its borders. 

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Djibouti is located between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Photo: Getty Images

Observers also note Djibouti’s strategic location adjacent to the narrow waterway between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and not far from the Suez Canal, the lifeline of global trade and energy supplies.

The PLA base is just 13 kilometres from a key US Army stronghold in the nation, where France, Italy and Japan also have bases and camps. 

The PLA Daily reported that within the last three months two batches of Chinese warships, including the powerful Haikou – a Type 052C destroyer, have stopped at the base to give hundreds of sailors and marines rest and recreation. And more of their destroyers are scheduled to enjoy R&R stops there.

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A still from a PLA TV program about a firing drill conducted by Chinese troops in Djibouti.

In September, troops dispatched at the base also held a firing practice under the scorching sun on a range operated by the Djiboutian gendarme. Xinhua said the aim was to bolster the regiment’s combat capacity in a foreign setting, as well as under harsh natural conditions and “explore ways for training soldiers stationed overseas”.