Senior Chinese officer in Djibouti following base talk

BEIJING (Reuters) - A senior Chinese military officer is visiting the Horn of Africa country Djibouti where he inspected a Chinese warship participating in anti-piracy patrols, China’s Defense Ministry said, following a report China wants a military base there.

In May, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh told French media his government was in talks with China about a base, adding Beijing’s presence would be welcome in the former French colony, which borders Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Chinese government would neither confirmed nor deny the report.

The United States and France both already have bases in the country and its port has been used by foreign navies, including China’s, participating in the fight against Somali pirates.

People’s Liberation Army Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui visited the Chinese warship Sanya while it was replenishing supplies in Djibouti, China’s Defense Ministry said late on Sunday.

Fang praised the performance of Chinese service personnel involved in the patrols, saying they showed how China was assuming its role as a responsible major country, the ministry said.

Fang was accompanied by deputy Chinese air force chief Zhang Jianping, the statement added. It made no mention of any Chinese base plans.

In an effort to dampen fears about Chinese plans connected to its increasingly modern and confident military, Beijing has repeatedly said it does not want military bases abroad.

In 2009, Chinese officials distanced themselves from comments by a rear admiral, Wu Shengli, who urged the nation to set up navy supply bases overseas for the anti-piracy fight. Wu is now China’s naval chief.

Chinese ships have undertaken anti-piracy operations off Somalia since late 2008, and in early 2010 Beijing agreed to join the multi-nation effort to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and nearby stretches of the Indian Ocean.

Experts have said China is likely one day to have to overcome its discomfort about overseas military bases, as its forces are drawn into protecting the growing interests of the world’s second-largest economy.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry