Troops at China’s first overseas military base have completed live-fire drills for the first time.
Chinese soldiers stationed in Djibouti, a tiny African nation that’s considered the gateway to the Suez Canal shipping route, carried out the exercises Friday, according to the South China Morning Post.
According to the paper, the drills involved dozens of troops and took place at the training range for the country’s national gendarmerie.
“This is the first time our soldiers stationed in Djibouti have left the camp to conduct combat training,” base commander Liang Yang said. “The live-fire training will help explore a new training model for the [Chinese] overseas garrison.”
The first Chinese troops set sail for the base in July, while construction began last year. The Xinhua state news agency said its establishment followed “friendly negotiations, and accords with the common interest of the people from both sides” between China and Djibouti.
“The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia,” it added.
China has emphasized its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Africa and depicted the base as something that would help it build upon this work.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in July that the base will, in a statement paraphrased by Xinhua, “better serve Chinese troops when they escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, perform humanitarian rescue, and carry out other international obligations.”
But the military move into Africa also accompanies growing economic influence in the region. In 2015, the Chinese government pledged to spend $60 billion on infrastructure within the African continent.
In its expansion of Chinese influence, the push into Africa mirrors the Asian “One Belt, One Road” plan that has seen China drop billions on regional trade routes within its home continent.