Despite rising tensions, US and Chinese troops worked together to put out fire at landfill, top US general says

  • Rising tensions between the United States and China have led to diplomatic spats and military encounters.
  • But in Djibouti, where the American and Chinese bases are a few kilometers apart, their troops generally get along well.
  • “Although we have this competition, the facts are that we co-exist,” General Stephen Townsend said.

Rising tensions between the United States and China have led to diplomatic spats and risky military encounters, but where American and Chinese troops are based closest to each other, they manage to s hear, the outgoing commander of U.S. Africa Command said Thursday. .

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is the only permanent US Army base in Africa. It is also a few kilometers from a base of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the only Chinese military outpost overseas.

China officially opened its base in late 2017. US military leaders greeted it with concern and formally complained to China about the activity there, but there were no problems between their personnel in Djibouti. , U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend told a Defense briefing. Writers Group Event.

Base China Djibouti Camp Lemonnier

The American base at Camp Lemonnier and the Chinese base are only a few kilometers from each other around the capital of Djibouti.

Google Maps

“Whenever a close competitor operates nearby, you pay attention to it and are more cautious, but the truth is that we co-existed alongside the Chinese base there,” said Townsend, who took command. in July 2019.

“There’s not a lot of tension, really. They’ve met at various engagement activities there around Djibouti City, and in the past we’ve actually helped each other out.” , Townsend said.

“A few years ago there was a fire at the city dump, south of Camp Lemmonier, and the people of Djibouti asked for help,” Townsend added. “We responded and found ourselves, our firefighters, fighting alongside Chinese firefighters, fighting alongside Djiboutian firefighters to bring the city dump fire under control.”

“So although we have this competition, the facts are that we co-exist there,” Townsend told reporters.

Not disturbed, but watch closely

Chinese Army military troop base in Djibouti

Soldiers at the opening ceremony of the Chinese base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and China are not alone in Djibouti. France has a long-standing military presence there – Camp Lemonnier was established by the French Foreign Legion – and Japan opened its only overseas military outpost there in 2011, several years after it and D Other countries have started conducting anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

China has also joined these anti-piracy efforts and continues to send ships to patrol around the Horn of Africa. It dispatched its 41st Escort Task Force to the area in May.

Its task forces typically consist of three to four ships that deploy for three to four months, spending most of that time at sea, Thomas Shugart, a naval warfare expert at the Center for a New American Security, told Insider. in June.

China’s rapid naval expansion means it is sending more sophisticated ships. “They’re retrofitting these ships, so they come with increased combat capability, but that’s also something any navy would probably do,” Townsend said.

Chinese troops also participate in UN missions in Africa and likely gain experience doing so, but “none of that bothers me much as a military leader,” Townsend said.

Chinese navy ships head for Djibouti

Ships carrying Chinese personnel to establish a base in Djibouti leave Zhanjiang, southern China, July 11, 2017.

Xinhua/Wu Dengfeng via Getty Images

China has focused on economic engagement in Africa — which US officials have called exploitative and sought to counter — rather than the military sphere and has so far avoided formal alliances, Townsend said, adding that he hadn’t seen much “military cooperation to build military capacity, other than their attempts to provide security assistance in some of these countries.”

However, Townsend and other US officials are not optimistic about all of China’s military activities in Africa.

The United States knows “full well” that China is seeking additional bases in Africa, which “requires my attention because of its potential implications for American forces and American security,” Townsend said. “We haven’t seen this other base emerge. We know they are trying and negotiating with multiple countries.”

Townsend has warned of China’s interest in Africa’s Atlantic coast, telling lawmakers in April 2021 that Beijing had “placed” Mauritania in Namibia. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that US officials had intelligence indicating that China planned to establish a naval base in Equatorial Guinea. A US delegation was dispatched in response in February.

The Chinese “seem to have a bit of traction in Equatorial Guinea, so we’re keeping an eye on that,” Townsend said Thursday. “Having said that, we haven’t asked Equatorial Guinea to choose between us in the West or in China. What we do is we try to convince them that it is in their interest to remain partners with us. all and not choose one over the other.”

US military officers in Japan at Camp Lemonnier Djibouti

Capt. Kenneth Crowe, then commanding officer of Camp Lemonnier, briefs Japanese officers visiting the base, September 4, 2019.

US Navy/MCS2 Marquis Whitehead

US officials continue to monitor the Chinese base in Djibouti. It is adjacent to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a major choke point between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Townsend and others see it as a window into Beijing’s ambitions.

China recently inaugurated “a massive pier” there large enough to accommodate two aircraft carriers or an aircraft carrier and a large-deck amphibious ship, Townsend said. “Why they need this capability there, I don’t know. I suspect they are thinking very deeply about the future and their future role in this region.”

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, who is being nominated to succeed Townsend, expressed a similar concern during his July 21 confirmation hearing.

“It is a strategic choke point that must remain clear for free navigation of commerce,” Langley said of the waters around Djibouti. “It’s a strategic point that we really have to worry about.”

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