When China began building its first overseas military outpost—a naval base in Djibouti—America and its allies were alarmed. The facility, which opened in 2017, sits just 13km (eight miles) from America’s largest base in Africa. France, Japan and Italy have bases there, too. Before long the Americans accused China’s forces of shining lasers at their pilots. China complained that Western aircraft were overflying its outpost to photograph it.
That friction has since lapsed into grudging coexistence in the former French colony, which is not much bigger than New Jersey. But a new threat to this uneasy balance has emerged with the announcement on January 9, 2023 that a Hong Kong-based company with links to Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, will build and operate a spaceport covering at least ten square kilometers (four square miles) in Djibouti.
The facility will include seven launch-pads and three rocket-testing pads, says Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group Ltd (HKATG), which signed a memorandum of understanding on the project with Djibouti’s government and a Chinese company that operates a special economic zone there. In March they will sign a contract for the deal, which allows construction of power stations, water plants, roads and seaports.
Ismail Omar Guelleh, Djibouti’s president, said on Twitter that the $1bn spaceport will take five years to build and be transferred to the government after 30 years. If completed, the spaceport offers Djibouti a chance to claim a piece of the multi-billion-dollar global space industry. There are about two dozen active spaceports worldwide. Africa has none…Djibouti has much to offer. It is not far from the equator, where the Earth rotates fastest, giving rockets a boost. Access to the sea would enable clients to import rockets and other bulky equipment by ship. They could also launch eastwards over the ocean, minimizing risks for people in surrounding areas while taking advantage of the Earth’s rotation.
For China, which hopes to develop a private space industry to rival America’s, Djibouti could provide an alternative to the four launch sites on its own soil. These are operating at capacity…
Excerpts from China, Africa and Space: Preparing for Launch, Economist, Jan. 21, 2023