China loaded up ships with troops and supplies Tuesday bound for the first People's Liberation Army overseas military base in the tiny and strategic Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, a move that is causing "very significant security concerns" for the U.S.
The Chinese base -- about four miles from U.S. Camp Lemonnier, a hub of operations for U.S. Africa Command in the East African country -- will "assist China's contribution to peace and stability both in Africa and worldwide," according to China's official Xinhua News Agency. Djibouti is also host to French and Japanese military bases.
The African outpost will be "conducive to China's performance of international obligations" in anti-piracy sea patrols in the region and other commitments with the United Nations, Xinhua said.
In addition to the troops posted to Djibouti, China has about 2,200 troops serving throughout Africa in peacekeeping operations.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the Djibouti base "will better serve Chinese troops when they escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, perform humanitarian rescue, and carry out other international obligations."
The deployment of ships and troops to Djibouti was seen as another step in the transformation of the Chinese navy from its traditional coastal defense role to a blue-water, power projection force.
China's state-run Global Times noted, "It is indeed the People's Liberation Army's first overseas base. China will station troops there, and it is not a commercial re-supply point."
"Foreign public opinion focuses on the base for good reason -- this base will support China's navy to go farther afield, and it is of great significance," the Global Times said.
The U.S. has already expressed its concerns about the Chinese base to the Djibouti government, which last November received a $400 million investment from the Chinese Merchants Group, a Hong Kong conglomerate, to develop a free trade zone.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that he had conveyed those concerns to Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh.
Without giving details, Waldhauser said he had "expressed our concerns about some of the things that are important to us about what the Chinese should not do at that location."
Camp Lemonnier is one of the Pentagon's largest and most important foreign military installations, where about 4,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors are assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
It is also home to Special Operations Command (Forward)-East Africa, which has carried out operations against Al Shabab militants in Somalia and the Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group in Yemen.
Personnel at Camp Lemonnier have been involved in highly secretive missions, including targeted drone killings in the Mideast and the Horn of Africa, and in the Jan. 29 raid in Yemen in which Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens was killed in the first military action ordered by President Donald Trump.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.