The PLA maintains an impressive tempo of drills and ceremonies all year long. But on November 25 photos and video were disseminated by Chinese state media of a live fire exercise in Djibouti involving PLAN marines. These were members of the garrison tasked with protecting a new PLA naval facility that opened four months ago.
Described as a “military support base,” the PLA’s main objective in Djibouti, a former French colony that hosts other foreign bases, is to safeguard a free trade zone and a supply depot for their warships that have been patrolling the waters off the Horn of Africa these past 10 years. Unlike their counterparts serving with the UN across Central Africa, the Chinese troops in Djibouti aren’t peacekeepers and are equipped for real combat.
Reports of the PLA’s base in Djibouti first surfaced in 2015. But it took a few more years before the area, a small strip of coastal land, was fenced in and physical structures were built for a garrison that was activated on August 1. The recent exercise held in November offered a rare glimpse into the weapons and tactics of the PLA for so-called “low intensity conflict.”
Although only a few details about the exercise were shared, the available footage and imagery highlighted the PLA’s growing confidence in its prowess and kit. They also advertised one of the newest wheeled fighting vehicles in its arsenal, a tank destroyer based on an 8×8 APC. These were shown firing their main armament, the 105mm rifled gun, at targets affixed onto a sand berm.
This vehicle known as the ST1 is based on the successful ZBL-09 that enjoys widespread use in the PLA and is a fixture during its lavish parades. The ZBL-09 is comparable to other modular wheeled APCs like the Austrian Pandur, the Finnish Patria, or the Swiss Piranha. Unlike its Western equivalents, it seems the PLA and its industrial partners were more successful in adapting it for different roles like an amphibious light tank on wheels.
The ZBL’s lineage currently includes an infantry fighting vehicle, a recovery vehicle, a bridgelayer, a self-propelled howitzer, and a mobile anti-aircraft gun. In September 2017 Norinco unveiled the “VN1C” at a demonstration of its armored vehicle portfolio. The VN1C is an export variant of the ZBL and had a remote controlled turret that combined an automatic cannon and a missile launcher.
The PLA marine unit in Djibouti, who are attired in distinct blue tinted battle dress uniform, appear to have three types of vehicles for their mission. The first is a 4×4 Dongfeng armored car, then there’s the ZBL IFV for ferrying a squad of soldiers, and finally the ST1 tank destroyer for striking large targets.
It’s unclear just how long the PLA intend to stay in Djibouti as these arrangements depend on bilateral negotiations and the current lease stretches a decade with annual payments in the millions of dollars. But the presence of Chinese marines shouldn’t be too alarming. France, Japan, and the US have their own bases in the country. Concerns of Chinese expansionism are unfounded, since the PLA have been transparent with their goals near the Red Sea–to protect commercial shipping and support humanitarian efforts in a volatile region.
Djibouti’s neighborhood is far from tranquil. The small African state is a boat ride away from war-torn Yemen and squeezed between unstable Somalia and isolationist Eritrea, with whom it has a border dispute. Owing to its climate, Djibouti and its neighbors are threatened by drought and famine. These risks make it a willing partner of Beijing, who is beyond generous when it comes to financing local infrastructure.