Soldiers carry a PLA flag and Chinese national flags before the military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the foundation of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) at Zhurihe military base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
CHINA’S five-star red flag has been hoisted at its new military base in Djibouti, Horn of Africa.

On Sunday the People's Liberation Army celebrated its 90th birthday. At the parade President Xi Jinping, dressed in fatigues, called for the military to build itself into a world class "heroic" armed force. 

There has been much speculation since China set up its first permanent military base in Africa this month, heavily fortified with three layers of security and 23 000m2 of underground space.

Some analysts suggested China was flexing its military muscle. Others thought the base is part of the country’s efforts to establish a global naval force.

The US has maintained its only African military base in these parts for 15 years.

France and Japan have their bases here too. The Economist even went as far as to call it the “superpowers’ playground”.

Djibouti has little to speak of in terms of natural resources, but according to experts, from a foreign military perspective, it offers benefits such as a peaceful government and it is located on a busy shipping route next-door to conflicts in Somalia and Yemen. It is also a short flight to the Middle East.

The Djibouti government derives a healthy income from these foreign military bases and views it as a contributor to its economic growth.

Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the decision to build the base stemmed from friendly negotiations between the two countries.

It augurs well for China, which wants to enhance its missions such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and West Asia.

“The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military co-operation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways,” reported Xinhau.

No details have been released on the number of units to be stationed at the port.

China’s foreign ministry said the facility would make possible greater contributions to peace in Africa and benefit Djibouti’s economy.

Military expert Helmoed Heitman puts China’s move down to its increasing interest in maritime trade and in ensuring security of maritime traffic to and from Suez.

Somali piracy will not ease up until the country is fully stabilised. Other threats to shipping in the region include the civil war in Yemen. China has been deploying naval task groups to the north-western Indian Ocean to protect its ships.

Heitman said it made good sense to have a local shore base to better support task groups from home. Africa was probably the only continent on which a foreign power could still establish a military base to use pretty much as it liked.

He believed the base also served as an experiment in establishing and operating a foreign base should China want to use its muscle in another region.

Heitman said China had growing interests in Africa. It made sense to have a base to launch and command non-combatant evacuation operations (as in Libya some time ago). This included embassy relief or evacuation operations, disaster aid and emergency relief to build China’s image, and military assistance missions in support of favoured governments.

However, this move also makes it easier for Beijing to influence forces in African countries.

The base is close enough to the Gulf to enable China to protect its oil interests without having a presence in the Arab countries, where it would be forced to choose a side between the countries on the west coast and Iran.

Heitman said India and Japan, in particular, and Europe would be forced to rethink the security of their trade through Suez and their access to Gulf oil - which could, of course, have the undesired effect of prompting India, Japan and South Korea to accelerate their military build-up and draw closer to the US. Much of the effect of China’s seizure of islets and reefs in the South China Sea has been to drive the littoral countries closer to the US.

While the US no longer depends on oil from the Gulf, its allies need secure access, so a Chinese base in the area from where it would be possible to conduct covert operations against tanker traffic - directly or by supporting Iran, already a Chinese ally - could muddle the US’s calculations.

China has invested heavily in its ambitious plan to revive the old maritime silk road and it is forging ahead with new partnerships in pursuit of its One Belt and One Road initiative.

This maritime and land-based trade route involves an area which covers 55% of the world’s GDP, 70% of the global population and 75% of known energy reserves.

Observers see the move as a means to secure this prime route with military steel.

As China grows its might as a super power it makes good sense that it increases its military strength and grows its fleet to a so-called blue water navy capable of manoeuvres around the world.

Peters is the live editor of Weekend Argus. She is on a 10-month scholarship with the China Africa Press Centre. Instagram: mels_chinese_takeout