BEIJING — A top Chinese military officer visited Djibouti at the weekend, official media reported, prompting a state-run newspaper Tuesday to downplay concerns Beijing is planning to establish a base in the strategically vital African entrepot.
The chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) general staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui met Djibouti's president at the weekend, the official PLA news source China Military Online reported.
Fang told President Ismail Omar Guelleh that China was willing to "deepen pragmatic cooperation between the two countries and two militaries," the report paraphrased.
Beijing is expanding its military heft and reach as China becomes more powerful, with annual double-digit defense budget increases and its first aircraft carrier entering service.
A former French colony, Djibouti guards the entrance to the Red Sea and, ultimately, the Suez Canal, and has been used by international navies — including China — as a base in the fight against piracy from neighboring Somalia.
In May, Guelleh told AFP that "discussions are ongoing" with China for a military base in the tiny Horn of Africa nation, saying that Beijing's presence would be "welcome."
Chinese officials say the country does not have any overseas military bases.
But Chinese contracts to build or manage Indian Ocean ports have raised concerns it is seeking to establish a so-called "string of pearls" in the region.
The state-run Global Times on Tuesday said that Fang's visit had prompted overblown fears of Chinese military expansion.
"It is unfair to hype up the 'China threat' as China's military base will mainly serve as a supply station even if it is created to support escort groups engaging in anti-terrorist and anti-piracy missions," it paraphrased a navy military expert, Li Jie, as saying.
It also cited unnamed analysts urging people "not to politicize or over-interpret the visit."
The US, France and Japan already have facilities in Djibouti, and China Military Online said that Fang visited the Chinese guided missile frigate Sanya, which was making a port call after patrolling in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast for more than 90 days.
The defense ministry reposted its report on its website.