U.S., China, Others Build Bases in Djibouti – What Could Go Wrong?

Photo: U.S. Navy/Drae Parker

The small East African country of Djibouti – which sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal and a shipping chokepoint in the sea lanes connecting Africa with the Middle East and India – hosts seven foreign militaries. The U.S. and China are now neighbors, and Saudi Arabia is coming soon.

The U.S. owns the biggest base there. Since 2002, Camp Lemonnier has occupied more than 600 acres of Djibouti’s land and hosted around 4,000 American military and civilian personnel. It is the U.S. Africa Command’s main base in the Horn of Africa, a strategically vital location for fighting terrorists on the continent and monitoring piracy in the waters off Djibouti’s coast.

The French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Japanese have joined the U.S. as fellow land leasers, with similar strategic and economic interests. Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, has a strong interest in Yemen, because Djibouti sits just across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. The Saudis support Yemen’s government in its ongoing war against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Washington has committed support to the Saudis for this fight.

But Beijing’s interests in Djibouti remain murky – and potentially at odds with U.S. interests in the region. “They view that [the base in Djibouti] as part of their long-term strategy to become a global power, not just a regional power, and they are spending an extraordinary amount of effort and investment,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats earlier this month.

China is paying Djibouti $20 million a year to host its first overseas base. That’s actually a bargain compared to the U.S. annual lease payment of $63 million. Some 300 to 400 Chinese military personnel will live at the base, situated a few miles from Camp Lemonnier.

 “The facilities [in Djibouti] will mainly be used for logistical support and personnel recuperation of the Chinese armed force conducting such missions as maritime escort in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance,” Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense, said last February.

However, the base construction also appears to be part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative – which aims for massive investment in and development of trade routes on land and at sea in an area covering around 65 percent of the world’s population, according to Kevin Sneader, chairman of offices in Asia for McKinsey & Company. Most of the goods that China exports to Europe – at an estimated value of $1 billion a day – go through the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden.

“That ‘One Belt’ road situation gives them expedited access to Europe, but also access to the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East,” said Coats. China’s interest in Djibouti, he said, is to advance its aspirations to become a global power.

Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute in London, told The Cipher Brief that having a base in Djibouti will allow the Chinese to “better protect trade flows.”

“China has, over the years, gotten increasingly involved in peacekeeping,” Paice said. “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.”

General Thomas Waldhauser, head of the U.S. Africa Command at Camp Lemonnier, said at a Pentagon press briefing last March that both sides are “learning.” He said the U.S. will try “to establish a relationship with them [the Chinese] and try to work with them where we can.”

Still, many in U.S. policy and national security circles take a hawkish stance toward China. At an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in May 2016, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, then director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and now the President’s National Security Advisor, said that Chinese officials are “challenging U.S. interests at the far reaches of American power” in order to “expand territory and expand their influence at the expense of U.S. interests and the security of our partners in the [Asia Pacific] region.”

In a February 2016 letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chris Smith (R-NJ), and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) wrote, “[We are] worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counter-terrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region.” 

President Donald Trump has recently seemed to take a softer tone toward China, telling Fox News after his April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two world leaders “have a good chemistry together.” But Timothy Heath, a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, wrote in The Cipher Brief, “Although the summit aimed to cultivate an aura of cooperation, the reality of increasing disagreement and competition lurks beneath the surface of the U.S.-China relationship.”

Heath noted that Beijing appeared to be positioning itself for “a contest” for international leadership, in light of the “vacuum left by President Trump’s disinterest in global issues.”

If this is indeed how Washington views China – as a country bent on world domination – then the new Chinese base in Djibouti could become “intensely problematic,” said Paice.

Moreover, Chinese soft power influence is undoubtedly growing in East Africa. A $14 billion infusion of money for infrastructure development, widely publicized in Djibouti, “has generated enormous goodwill with the population,” Joseph Braude, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, reported in the Huffington Post.

Braude pointed to cultural ventures China is building, notably, the new Confucius Institute in Djibouti City.

“As Chinese influence grows in Djibouti, its ability to influence the government’s foreign policy and security strategies promises to grow along with it,” he wrote.

Djibouti’s Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh, told The Cipher Brief that China is a “friend” and Djibouti has “very good relations with China.”

In response to the question of whether this new Chinese base will have an impact on U.S. interests in the region, Ambassador Doualeh said, “We expect all countries to cooperate based on international law.”

His remarks echoed those of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who met in Djibouti last month with President Ismail Omar Guelleh and then told reporters, “International law is critical to keeping the waterways open, and it’s very important we maintain the same degree of cooperation in that regard in the future, as other countries come in.”  

The U.S. and China could join forces in the fight against al Shabaab terrorists in the Horn of Africa, al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, and pirates off Djibouti’s coast.    

“Proximity can lead to growth of trust and understanding, even collaboration,” Paice said. “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,” he added, “that will be from the U.S. side, not the China side.” 

View our expert commentary on this topic:

Djibouti Wins Jackpot – Renting Out Desert for Military Bases, by Edward Paice, Director of the Africa Research Institute

Djibouti Keeps Wary Eye on Eritrea, Somali Pirates, Al Shabaab, by Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Ambassador of Djibouti to the United States

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.