China is constructing its first overseas military base just a few miles from one of the United States’ largest and most important foreign bases — Camp Lemonnier in the small East African nation of Djibouti. Five other nations have put up bases there, and Saudi Arabia will soon join them. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute in London, why China chose Djibouti, what the U.S. thinks about it, and why several other nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, focusing military attention on the coast of the Horn of Africa.
The Cipher Brief: Why is China building its first overseas military base in Djibouti?
Edward Paice: Djibouti has great strategic importance. It is located on the Babel el Mandeb. It’s only 20 or 30 miles from the Arabian Peninsula, opposite Yemen. Estimates vary but about 30 percent of the world’s shipping goes through there and onto Suez. From a trade point of view, Djibouti is a kind of chokepoint. China’s trade to Europe goes mostly through that route, and that’s a substantial proportion of a billion dollars a day. Part of the rationale is that in the development of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, this is a key point and will enable it to better protect trade flows. That’s the trade argument.
Militarily, it’s pretty well placed for access to both Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Djibouti is almost one leg in each – and that’s been attractive to a number of other powers. China has, over the years, gotten increasingly involved in peacekeeping, it has cited its desire to play a greater role in peacekeeping, and it has combat troops in both South Sudan and Mali. It’s logical that it needs an actual base somewhere in Africa, which is really no different from the Americans saying that they need Camp Lemonnier as a headquarters for operations in Africa, whether in peacekeeping or counterterror or whatever. That is the military rationale.
Why Djibouti? In theory, it could have been further down the coast in Somaliland or further up the coast in Eritrea. Other countries have built, are building, or are negotiating to build bases in both of those countries. The UAE, for example, has a base in Assab in Eritrea, and it has just recently negotiated to construct one at Berbera in Somaliland. But I think that the attraction of Djibouti is that it has what you would call a stable government – that doesn’t mean it’s a government that’s particularly appealing, but the president and his coterie are extremely dug in there; so arguably, the political situation is more stable in Djibouti than either Eritrea or Somaliland. The factors that may affect stability in Eritrea are the long running border dispute with Ethiopia, and China would certainly have no desire to get involved in that situation overtly if it ever flares up again. The situation in Somaliland from a security point of view is pretty stable, but it is Somalia’s neighbor, where things are pretty far from being stable. Although China may have also had discussions with the Somaliland government – I don’t know.
A further reason to pick Djibouti is that China has already spent substantial sums revitalizing the railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and substantial money on various other infrastructure developments in Djibouti itself. It’s a confluence of these factors – trade, military, and stability in the host country’s government.
TCB: Can you lay out on the flipside what exactly Djibouti gets out of this arrangement? Going along with that, does the fact that Djibouti is a stable government, surrounded by unstable governments in Eritrea and Somalia, contribute to its desire to host this Chinese military presence in the country?
EP: I wouldn’t say that Eritrea is actually unstable, but there is a greater risk of instability both there and in Somaliland because of relations in their neighbors.
TCB: Mohamed Siad Doualeh, the Djibouti Ambassador to the U.S., lists Eritrea and Somalia as top security concerns for Djibouti right now.
EP: That’s always going to be the case because it’s a very small country waged between the two, and periodically, relations between Djibouti and Somaliland have been fractious – not war-like, but fractious. At the moment, Eritrea and Djibouti are still going through an arbitration process following various flare-ups on their border between 2000 and 2010, so relations between Djibouti and both neighbors are not great.
What’s in it for Djibouti? Money. Pure and simple. This is a very autocratic regime that has done extraordinarily little for its people, and this is a fantastic get-rich-quick scheme – to rent bits of desert to foreign powers. It’s as simple as that, I’m afraid. You have a highly autocratic government – not that its neighbors aren’t autocratic – and also one that’s extremely self-enriching. That is the name of the game – they want to get rich.
TCB: You mentioned the U.S. military presence at Camp Lemonnier. What are the dynamics likely to be between the U.S. and China in Djibouti? Is there contention from the U.S. side?
EP: This is quite a curious situation — that you have bases of U.S. and China just a few miles apart. Djibouti is like something out of a novel. It’s almost unbelievable that this country, ruled by a pretty despotic government, is now everyone’s favorite place to build a military base.
No doubt, it will be an unusual situation for the U.S. military to deal with, but it depends on which lens both sides choose to look through. China’s rhetoric on this is extremely placatory — that it is not there to upset anybody, that it is there to protect its own interests, to be able to protect its own citizens in Africa. Everything China says this base is for would be claimed by anybody else who’s building a base there, or anywhere else in the region. It only becomes intensely problematic if you view it though a lens, which I think hawks do, that China is bent on world domination and will use military means alongside commercial means.
But proximity could be used by both sides as a positive experiment, and therefore there is potential to deescalate the war of words when it crops up over some other area, like the South China Sea. Proximity can be a good thing. Proximity can lead to growth of trust and understanding, even collaboration. But whether it is going to be a good thing or not is going to be up to the two sides. I’m quite sure that if there is any aggression in the air as this base becomes operational that will be from the U.S. side, not the China side. China will be extremely diplomatic in its language and its actions.
TCB: Do you think President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have the more hawkish view that China is bent on world domination?
EP: I’m not an expert on U.S. military policy, but I sense as a newspaper reader that the general feeling within the U.S. military is quite hawkish toward China. And that may be justified. I’m not criticizing it; I’m just stating how it appears.
China has been present in Africa for centuries. Sure, there has been a very rapid escalation in its engagement with Africa since 2000. But that tends to be viewed with far greater suspicion by the U.S. than it does certainly on the part of African government, but also in most European ones. I think there are opportunities in Africa for everybody to work better together, and some people realize this. The collaboration between the World Bank and various Chinese financing and construction entities in Africa is increasing. But on the military side, China’s presence almost anywhere outside a certain distance from its own border is viewed with intense suspicion in the U.S.
TCB: Any final thoughts?
EP: One of the reasons for the appeal of Djibouti as well is because of the war in Yemen. The U.S. has been in Djibouti since 2001 – a long time. China is not particularly interested, at least not directly interested, in the war in Yemen. But many of the other parties who are building bases up and down that coast in the Horn of Africa are very interested in Yemen, and that’s why they’ve taken bases. Saudi Arabia will be the next one to have a base in Djibouti. The UAE built its base in Eritrea at Assab and is negotiating about one in Somaliland to support its activities in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
The interesting thing is that at the moment all these parties within a stretch of coast a few hundred kilometers long, if they’re not on the same side, they’re not on different sides of the same conflict. They don’t need to rub up against each other at the moment. But you could easily see a situation in which these parties get a lot more antagonistic toward each other. Things are really heating up in that neck of the woods. And if you introduce Egypt as well, which may also end up building a base somewhere on that coast, you’re ending up with a situation that could lead to cooperation and rapprochement, but there is also a quite high potential to spark an incident between two parties; it’s a sheer fact of life with such proximity.
What happens in Mogadishu is just going to extend this chain of bases further south. Turkey would love to have a base in Mogadishu, and any number of other countries would like that as well, like the UAE. It’s on many countries’ radars, but at the moment, when the instability of the situation in Somalia in general is still so high, I can’t see anyone being keen to build something at the scale of Camp Lemonnier there.