When last we checked in on Djibouti, the tiny east African nation of 900,000 people that shares a border with lawless Somalia to the south, and is separated from war-torn Yemen by just 13 miles of water across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, China had just announced that the country would play host to Beijing’s first overseas military outpost.
Nearly 5,000 miles from the Chinese capital, Djibouti is situated in a highly strategic, if exceedingly dangerous part of the world.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is one of the planet’s most important oil chokepoints and thus there are any number of nations that have an interest in keeping it open and secure. Additionally, Djibouti’s location on the horn of Africa makes it an attractive base from which to conduct anti-terror operations in both Africa and the Mid-East.
While some observers view China’s establishment of a military base in the country as a reflection of Xi’s efforts to i) project Beijing’s growing military prowess, and ii) serve notice that in the wake of the PLA’s unexpected visit to the besieged Yemeni port of Aden last year, China isn’t afraid to get involved in the region’s affairs, it’s worth noting that the Chinese are no strangers to Djibouti. China has been investing in the country’s infrastructure for years, most notably in the form of a $4 billion railroad connecting the country to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
And that’s not all.
“China is financing a railroad, as well as an expansion of port terminals, fuel and water pipelines, a natural gas liquefaction plant, highway upgrades, two proposed airports, and several government buildings,” Bloomberg writes, adding that “the new military installation will be a sort of insurance policy, a security station to protect its investments and extend its economic reach.”
China is pitching its involvement in the country’s development as an extension of Xi’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which is essentially an expansive initiative that i) gives China an excuse to take a stake in any country that’s willing to accept FDI, and ii) creates a kind of pressure valve for Beijing’s excess industrial capacity.
"China is explaining it as part of the 'one road, one belt' strategy, to help link Ethiopia to the sea," one Western diplomat who has been briefed by Chinese officials on the Djibouti base, told Reuters this week. "China does not want to be seen as a threat.”
And frankly, they probably aren’t. Or at least not any more of a threat than all of the other countries that have military outposts in Djibouti. Countries like the US, which unsurprisingly has the largest military presence of any nation and which uses its bases there as a launching pad for drone missions. “Djibouti is also the U.S. military’s regional hub for drones, and it sends thousands of Predators and Reapers across the region each year,” Bloomberg notes, before recounting a hilarious string of drone and spy plane mishaps that eventually led Washington to move the unmanned killing machines away from the country’s airport. Here are a few additional excerpts from Bloomberg’s latest on the country:
[In the late seventies] Djibouti, a country about the size of New Jersey, had one paved road and less than a square mile of arable land. The Associated Press deemed it perfectly devoid of resources, “except for sand, salt, and 20,000 camels.” The New York Times guessed the new nation might get swallowed up by one of its neighbors—Ethiopia or Somalia, maybe—because it was “so impoverished that it cannot stand on its own.”
Years passed, and those neighbors were too preoccupied with wars, famine, and civil anarchy to pay much attention to it. Such upheavals, and almost everything else, skirted Djibouti. Then the new century rolled around and, seemingly overnight, the country’s sleepiness became a valuable commodity.
After Sept. 11, the U.S. military rushed to establish its first base dedicated to counterterrorism, and Djibouti was about the only country in the neighborhood that wasn’t on fire. Sitting beside the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait—a gateway to the Suez Canal at the mouth of the Red Sea, and one of the most trafficked shipping lanes in the world—it provided easy access to hot spots in both Africa and the Middle East. A few years later, when Somali pirates started threatening the global shipping industry, the militaries of Germany, Italy, and Spain joined France, which has maintained a base since colonial times, by moving troops to Djibouti. Japan arrived in 2011, opening its first military base on foreign soil since World War II.
U.S. soldiers can’t go anywhere without being reminded of the People’s Republic. On the drive to the clinic, I’d noticed lengths of black tubing lying by the side of the road. “That’s a new water pipeline to Ethiopia,” the driver said, “built by the Chinese.” Nobody knows how the new Chinese base will change things, mostly because its scale isn’t yet known, but traces of anticipatory tension are palpable. Several diplomatic officials and members of U.S. Congress have publicly fretted over China’s growing influence in Djibouti, speculating that it might signal an era of increased Chinese military engagement around the world. Kelly, the U.S. ambassador, told me that “snooping,” electronic or otherwise, will be an obvious concern around Camp Lemonnier.
The Americans still have the largest foreign military presence in the country, but China’s intensifying interest in Djibouti is shifting the balance of influence.
With a lineup of natural resources—along with a port on one of the most geopolitically significant straits in the world—[some] believe that in the next 20 years or so, Djibouti will become the next Dubai, a magnet for capital and free trade. To hear them talk, making billions by selling the world’s militaries on the country’s lack of incident was just the first step.
“And why not?” asks Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf. “We have some assets that Dubai never had.”
First, there’s that shipping lane. It’s busier than Dubai’s. Second, there are all those landlocked African countries stacked up behind it; they’re desperate for a portal to the wider world. Third, there’s the infrastructure. Not traditional infrastructure, which, China notwithstanding, is still in short supply, but rather digital infrastructure. Seven submarine fiber-optic cables, the kind that carry the vast majority of the world’s digital information, come ashore in Djibouti, making it the most important hub of connectivity in East Africa. “Forget gigabytes,” says Finance Minister Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh. “We offer terabytes.”
The scouring Khamsin winds, which blow through the country from June to August, are being harnessed to power a 60-megawatt wind farm, and the pitiless sun, which beats down with near-kinetic force, will power solar energy developments and more than quadruple the country’s total domestic energy output. Within a decade, the government hopes to be the first country in Africa to be powered solely by renewable energy.
One country that isn't likely to be particularly enamored with China's new military outpost is India. "If I were Indian I would be very worried about what China is up to in Djibouti," a Western official told Reuters. "Djibouti enables China to base its long-range naval air assets there and these are capable of maintaining surveillance over the Arabian Sea as well as India's island territories off the Western coast," Indian army brigadier Mandip Singh says.
Underscoring the point we made above (i.e. that the new base is an extension of the PLA's move to dock in Aden last year when the Iran-backed Houthis set upon the city creating a humanitarian crisis) a diplomatic source in China says Beijing got the idea for the outpost when the Chinese ship that showed up across the Strait in Yemen ran out of supplies. "It's a supply facility pure and simple," the source remarked.
Whatever the case, it will be interesting to watch Djibouti's development in the years ahead. With al-Shabaab operating out of Somalia and Islamic State (not to mention al-Qaeda) maintaining a notable presence just across the Bab al-Mandeb as well as to the north and northeast in Africa, there are certainly a number of security concerns. Additionally, the contention that solar and wind power will help transform the country into "the next Dubai," assumes alternative energy can create the same kind of prosperity the Emirates enjoy thanks to their vast stores of crude. That may be wishful thinking. If nothing else, it does appear that this "forgotten sandlot" (as Bloomberg calls Djibouti) will play a key geopolitical role going forward as a kind of regional hub where world powers jostle for influence - and that alone makes it worth paying attention to.