DJIBOUTI — The two countries keep dozens of intercontinental nuclear missiles pointed at each other’s cities. Their frigates and fighter jets occasionally face off in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
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.
With increasing tensions over China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea, American strategists worry that a naval port so close to Camp Lemonnier could provide a front-row seat to the staging ground for American counterterror operations in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
“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.”
Beyond surveillance concerns, United States officials, citing the billions of dollars in Chinese loans to Djibouti’s heavily indebted government, wonder about the long-term durability of an alliance that has served Washington well in its global fight against Islamic extremism.
Just as important, experts say, the base’s construction is a milestone marking Beijing’s expanding global ambitions — with potential implications for America’s longstanding military dominance.
“It’s naval power expansion for protecting commerce and China’s regional interests in the Horn of Africa,” Professor Dutton said. “This is what expansionary powers do. China has learned lessons from Britain of 200 years ago.”
“The support facility will be mainly used to provide rest and rehabilitation for the Chinese troops taking part in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian rescue,” the Defense Ministry in Beijing said in a written reply to questions.
In addition to having 2,400 peacekeepers in Africa, China has used its vessels to escort more than 6,000 boats from many countries through the Gulf of Aden, the ministry said. China’s military has also evacuated its citizens caught in the world’s trouble spots. In 2011, the military plucked 35,000 from Libya, and 600 from Yemen in 2015.
And the millions of Chinese citizens who live and work overseas have come to expect that the government will look out for their interests — a point driven home in recent years when Beijing was forced to rescue Chinese nationals from strife-torn Libya and Yemen.
“Not only will it give them a huge shot in the arm in terms of naval logistics, but it will also strengthen China’s image at home and abroad.”
A low-rise encampment built adjacent to a new Chinese-owned commercial port, the 90-acre base is designed to house up to several thousand troops and will include storage structures for weapons, repair facilities for ships and helicopters, and five berths for commercial ships and one for military vessels.
At the base’s front gate recently, Chinese workers in construction helmets waved away a reporter who tried to ask questions. China’s Defense Ministry declined a request to tour the site.
If the Pentagon’s current base restrictions are any guide, American and Chinese troops are unlikely to be sharing beers any time soon. American officials, citing possible security threats, keep most personnel confined to the 570-acre rectangle of scrubland, which is a 10-minute drive from the center of Djibouti city. It is a policy that stirs some discontent among those who often spend yearlong stints at Camp Lemonnier without venturing outside.
By contrast, French military personnel can often be seen jogging through the city and socializing with locals. Americans who work for the United States Embassy also live in the community and say they feel little threat to their safety.
“We’re like a landlocked aircraft carrier,” Captain Black said during a recent tour of the installation, which is blasted in summer by broiling heat. “Part of my job is to create opportunities to give people a break and attend to their mental health needs.”
Others, like Mohamed Ali Basha, the owner of a Yemeni-style restaurant that serves grilled fish and massive discs of baked flatbread, said he would welcome business from military personnel.
Critics say the surge of loans, which amount to 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, raises concerns about China’s leverage over the Djibouti government should it fall behind on debt payments.
“Such generous credit is itself a form of control,” said Mohamed Daoud Chehem, a prominent government critic. “We don’t know what China’s intentions really are.”
Abdirahman M. Ahmed, who runs Green Djibouti International, an environmental social enterprise, said 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.”
The plethora of foreign troops, some say, also served as a bulwark against the jihadist violence that has destabilized other countries in the region. Djibouti, whose population of 900,000 embraces a moderate form of Sunni Islam, has not been entirely spared: In 2014, a double suicide bombing at a downtown restaurant popular with foreigners killed a Turkish national and wounded 11 people. The Shabab, the Somali-based militant group, later claimed responsibility, saying the attack was motivated by the presence of so many Western troops in Djibouti.
For American military strategists, the security implications of the Chinese base are unclear, though practically speaking, many experts say the military threat is minimal.