ISS Today: Djibouti plays the West off against the Far East

By ISS Today 18 June 2017

Why has China invested so generously in tiny Djibouti, and why are Western governments worried? By Berouk Mesfin for ISS TODAY.

China recently established a military base in Djibouti. Little is known about the base except that it may have capacity to house up to 10,000 troops. The military base has attracted much international attention, with little understanding of either Djibouti’s or China’s motives.

Turning 40 years old on 27 June, Djibouti – which has hosted military bases of both the US (since 2001) and France (since Djibouti’s independence in 1977) – has long been considered a stable country in the conflict-ravaged Horn of Africa.

Djibouti geographically controls access to the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The strait is one of the busiest maritime routes in the world and is a strategic maritime choke point leading into the Red Sea and northwards to the Mediterranean Sea.

Commenting for ISS Today, Dr Michael Woldemariam, an assistant professor of international relations and political science at Boston University, describes Djibouti’s policy of balanced diplomacy. Djibouti’s political leaders have sought to broaden the country’s external partnerships, and China’s big infrastructure investments and its new military facility are part of this, he says.

Woldemariam says there is both an “economic logic” and a “security logic” behind this strategy. “Djibouti is a small country in a difficult neighbourhood and its government has historically faced additional internal political challenges.”

In this context, “external support helps guarantee the continuity of the existing political order”.

He says the Djiboutian government is aware of the risk of becoming obligated to its external partners – especially Western allies that are somewhat unreliable and fickle. Diversification of external partnerships provides autonomy and greater freedom, he says.

Also, the port of Djibouti and the rents collected from military bases are Djibouti’s only sources of income. China will pay $100-million annually in rent – more than what the US and French pay.

Dr Jonathan Fisher, a widely published scholar on the Horn of Africa at the University of Birmingham, told ISS Today that “Djibouti clearly sees its regional future in continuing to leverage its two significant resources – its port and its military facilities”.

Beyond the generous annual rent, Djibouti views China as a reliable economic partner. China has astutely spent hundreds of millions of dollars to turn the port of Djibouti into the region’s securest and biggest port.

China is also financing infrastructure projects totalling billions of dollars and including international airports and railway lines that stretch to landlocked Ethiopia, whose entire imports move through the port of Djibouti.

The crucial question is: Why has China invested so generously in tiny Djibouti, and chosen to establish its first-ever overseas military base there?

Fisher says China appears to be negotiating a “new relationship with Africa which looks increasingly like that of Western countries – focused on protecting pragmatically calculated national interests”.

China has long-term and considerable economic interests in Africa. These include the assets and commercial interests of thousands of Chinese nationals and numerous companies injecting investments into infrastructure and acquiring oil and mineral resources. There are also lucrative trade prospects with Africa, reaching a staggering $200-billion in 2013.

Qin Tian, a seasoned expert on China’s Middle Eastern foreign policy at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told ISS Today that the “Chinese public, commentators and companies want strong protection from the government for their overseas interests”.

Also, China’s pursuit of military bases beyond its traditional sphere of influence is part of its One Belt One Road initiative, a project connecting China’s coastal areas to Africa, Asia and Europe and passing through the Red and Mediterranean seas.

In order to allow trade to flow uninterrupted and protect emerging infrastructure along this highly beneficial maritime route, a permanent military presence must be established – including the shadowy military base in Djibouti.

Nonetheless, Western governments – recognising the fait accompli with little enthusiasm – are concerned about the military base. Apparently they see the base as the clearest indicator of China’s pugnacious determination to flex its muscles. The assumption is that China wants independent access to ports stretching from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean – and as quickly as possible, thereby potentially endangering Western interests and strategic dominance of these seas.

Of more importance is the proximity of the military base to Western military bases in Djibouti. This could enable China to gather intelligence about all aerial, land-based and seaborne operations conducted from these installations.

Beyond that, Western governments can’t easily ignore the implied risk that more and more African governments might be pulled towards the unrivalled trade and infrastructure diplomacy of China and so develop closer economic, political and diplomatic ties with it.

Whatever the reasons, the military base will more than likely allow China to enhance its influence nearer to its investments in Africa and the Red Sea trade route.

As for Djibouti, it will allow this small coastal country to improve its strategic options and geopolitical position in the Horn of Africa for another 40 years – even if it means playing off the West against the Far East. DM

Berouk Mesfin is an ISS consultant.

Photo: President of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh attends the meeting of the Peace and Security Council at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 29 January 2014. African leaders and the AU has urged South Sudan’s warring parties to peacefully end their political dispute. EPA/DANIEL GETACHEW


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