To read the full article by Antoine Izambart and Vincent Lamigeon, on Challenges.
According to Maxar satellite images analyzed by Preligens, China's first overseas military base is rapidly gaining momentum, with visits from helicopter carriers and logistics ships. The symbol of Chinese ambitions in the region. On the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which began on October 16, Challenges publishes seven articles symbolic of China's evolution and rise to power since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Here is the sixth. Over 210 meters long and 25,000 tons. It's quite a baby that made a stopover from August 6 to 13 at the Chinese military base in Doraleh, Djibouti, Beijing's first abroad.
Her name? Changbai Chan. An amphibious helicopter carrier type 071 of the Chinese Navy, capable of carrying 800 sailors, landing craft and Z-8 helicopters, copies of the French Super Frelon. Immortalized by the images of the American satellite imagery specialist Maxar, deciphered for Challenges by the French champion of image analysis by AI Preligens, the passage of the Changbai Chan symbolizes the impressive rise in power of this base inaugurated five years ago.
Focus on the Changbai Chan, a type 071 amphibious helicopter carrier of the Chinese Navy, photographed by a Maxar satellite on August 12, 2022 (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/detections Preligens/Challenges).
A Chinese Type 903 supply vessel, the Luomahu (number 907). This logistics ship with a displacement of more than 23,000 tons visited the Doraleh base last March and May (Google Earth / Maxar Technologies / Preligens detections / Challenges)
Since the beginning of the year, Chinese vessel rotations have increased. "Our automatic detections show more and more recurrent visits by heavy tonnage vessels in recent months," says Aurélien Debièvre, Preligens' product marketing manager. Completed in late 2021, the new pier, which overlooks the Gulf of Tadjoura, had already welcomed in March and May last year a Type 903 supply vessel, the Luomahu (number 907), a logistics ship with a displacement of more than 23,000 tons.
"The next step could be the passage of one of China's aircraft carriers, perhaps their third, the Fujian, which is undergoing sea trials," said a military source. This would send a strong message about China's rise to power." In 2021, the boss of the U.S. Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, assured that the pier was long enough to accommodate one of the Chinese aircraft carriers.
What exactly is the Chinese base? About 1 kilometer long and 700 meters wide, it is a rather compact site, located between the port of Djibouti, operated by China, and the new railway station, the terminus of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa link, also built by Beijing. It is a much smaller base than the Chinese naval bases on Hainan Island, for example, but it allows to do many things in a reduced space: training, logistics operations, maintenance, evacuation of Chinese nationals." says Aurélien Debièvre.
The site includes a heliport, which Western intelligence believes can become a drone runway, fuel depots, ammunition storage, a hospital, barracks, training and maintenance facilities. Preligens, whose algorithms are capable of automatically analyzing the traffic on the base, assures that it has not spotted any helicopter rotations, nor any deployment of ground vehicles. The most secret part of the site is a maze of very wide tunnels, of which Preligens has spotted two entrances under the runways. In addition to the storage of various materials, Western intelligence services suspect that it houses electronic warfare units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), especially since the site is located near a landing station for submarine cables to Asia and Europe.
The maximum capacity of the base? "The official speech speaks of a capacity of 10,000 people, but given the infrastructure, we can estimate its maximum capacity at about 5,000 people," says a specialist in the matter. The site is still far from its cruising speed. There are regular rotations, often with more arrivals than departures," observed a security source who wished to remain anonymous.
In total, it is difficult to know the real number, but we estimate that there are on average 1,500 people in the base. An assessment confirmed by Preligens. On the Djiboutian side, they are playing it cool. "The Chinese are less than 1,000 in the base, which is only dedicated to logistical support," says the ambassador in Paris, Ayed Mousseid Yahi Paris, Ayed Mousseid Yahya. When contacted, the Chinese embassy in Djibouti did not respond to our questions.
Identification by Preligens of the different zones of the Chinese base in Djibouti (Google Earth / Maxar Technologies / Preligens detections / Challenges)