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Dmitry Borisov

International Security expert, MA in International Affairs, Sciences Po Paris/MGIMO

A small East African nation of 876,000 people, of negligible resource wealth, and little to no political drama, Djibouti is rare to grab headlines. On November 26th 2015, however, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that its first oversees military installation would be in Djibouti, the country was suddenly launched to the forefront of international politics.

A small East African nation of 876,000 people, of negligible resource wealth, and little to no political drama, Djibouti is rare to grab headlines. On November 26th 2015, however, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that its first oversees military installation would be in Djibouti, the country was suddenly launched to the forefront of international politics.

The negotiations between China and Djibouti have been ongoing since February 2014, when the two parties signed an agreement allowing the Chinese Navy to use the Port of Djibouti, but it is only in May 2015 that rumors about the PRC looking to establish a military outpost truly started to spread. So far, Chinese officials have skillfully avoided calling the installation a military base. Instead, China insists that it is to be a “logistics facility” designed for refueling and resupplying Chinese Navy ships, helping China participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations, providing humanitarian assistance, and carrying out escort missions around the Horn of Africa and in pirate-ridden waters of the Gulf of Aden. The outpost is also reportedly designed to host some 10,000 Chinese troops, which, for all intents and purposes, makes it a military base in all but name.

In fact, in Djibouti, which is becoming increasingly crowded, it is not the only one: Djibouti already plays host to a 4,000 strong US force at Camp Lemonnier — the only permanent U.S. military base on the continent — which the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been using since 2001 to launch aerial attacks against al-Shabaab targets in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants in Yemen.

Djibouti is blessed with a strategic location near the busiest of shipping lanes: right on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden on the way to the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean.

The French and the Japanese have a military presence in Djibouti of 1,350 and 600 troops, respectively. With France and Japan each paying $30 million, the US paying $63 million, and China reportedly offering $100 million per year for rent, Djibouti seems to have found a profitable niche.

If little else, Djibouti is blessed with a strategic location near the busiest of shipping lanes: right on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden on the way to the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean. Apart from refueling trading and cargo vessels, the Port of Djibouti serves as a vital commerce hub, and especially so for neighboring landlocked Ethiopia, which uses the port for most of its exports. A Muslim-majority country, for the past 15 years Djibouti has been surprisingly stable, owing to the authoritarianism of its strongman president Ismail Omar Guelleh and Djibouti’s moderate brand of Sunni Islam. Sharing a border with Somalia without being affected by the chaos there, Djibouti provides a convenient foothold for carrying out counter-terrorism operations in the region.

For China, the establishment of a military base there is a logical move reflecting the evolution of its economic and military strategy. While China takes pride in not having military bases outside its national borders thus reinforcing its anti-imperialist rhetoric, the PRC’s rapid economic growth and evolving economic interests are calling for a change in policy.

As the Chinese domestic market expands, so does its appetite for energy and mineral resources that China seeks to sate through resource imports from Africa. To facilitate resource extraction, China has made significant investments into African infrastructure: in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, which account for over 17% of China’s crude oil imports. Faced with the imperatives of protecting its economic interests, its citizens—there are currently over a million Chinese nationals living in Africa — and ensuring the stability of its African partners, the PRC has consistently sought to increase its security presence on the continent. First, by raising its contributions to UN peacekeeping missions from 52 personnel in 2000 to 3,040 personnel deployed in 2015, but also through agreements such as the one with Djibouti, which appears crucial to China considering that the Gulf of Aden is the main shipping route for Chinese oil imports from the Middle East and East Africa.

The creation of the base in Djibouti may also be seen through the lens of China’s changing military strategy and the PRC’s emerging ambition to make its military strength commensurate with its economic power.

The creation of the base in Djibouti may also be seen through the lens of China’s changing military strategy and the PRC’s emerging ambition to make its military strength commensurate with its economic power. In this vein, China’s president Xi Jinping has recently announced the establishment by 2020 of a joint operational command structure as a part of a sweeping reform of the armed forces aimed at increasing its capacity of operating overseas. China thus seems to be breaking with its former policies: moving towards a larger international military presence and more closely emulating the United States, potentially fanning the flames of US-China rivalry not only in Africa, but worldwide.

The unveiling of the plans for the outpost heralds a deeper involvement of the PRC in Africa and a greater securitization thereof. China, like the broader international community, is increasingly viewing the continent’s challenges, as well as its own interests there in security terms, which, with greater Chinese financial and military engagement, could lead to significant changes in the African security landscape.

Lastly, Djibouti — small, resource poor, and surviving on revenue from its port — appears set to continue its brilliant balancing act, with the West and China now having to vie for the country’s loyalty. With backers like Washington and Beijing, the outlook for the thrice-reelected incumbent president Guelleh, faced with contentious domestic politics and the pressing problem of Yemeni and Somali refugees, is as strong as ever.

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