Djibouti’s geostrategic location
With a small population of under a million, located between Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen, Djibouti occupies a strategic location adjacent to the Bab el Mandab Strait, situated at the mouth of the Red Sea, which is a critical corridor for international shipping.
Djibouti is the third smallest country on the continent’s mainland, but given its geographic location it is easy to see why the US, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Saudi Arabia and China, agree that Djibouti is the place to be. It is little known that the only Japanese military base in the entire world is located in Djibouti City. This tiny African port state hosts military bases belonging to Italy, France, the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia at a very little distance from one another. Russia and India too have strong interests in setting up military bases there.
Yet much of the international discourse about Djibouti focuses on its relationship with China. The spectre of Chinese hegemony is raised in a scenario whereby China is described as operating at an advantageous position in Djibouti because of deep economic ties and financing infrastructure projects. And then this is extended by strategists into part of a push for great power dominance.
Western analysis emphasises the perspective of strategic manoeuvring from China secured by major investment projects in Djibouti. The infrastructure projects include the Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway project, Djibouti-Ethiopia Water pipeline, and it is stressed, importantly the Chinese-operated Dolareh port. The importance of the port is said to be, not only does it boost the Chinese Belt and Road initiative but also its military goals in the region.
As summarised by France24:
“In many ways the relationship between Djibouti and China is a case study in how Beijing is using its global infrastructure investment strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, to aggrandise its economic influence and strengthen its position as the top investor in Africa – a major geopolitical priority, with its booming economies and populations.”
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base is located by the Port of Doraleh to the west of Djibouti City. The base was formally opened on August 1, 2017. It is designated a supply centre for their peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in the region.
To the south of the city are several, more substantial, foreign military bases, including :
Camp Lemonnier, a former military base established as a garrison for the French foreign Legion, is a Naval Expeditionary Base, situated next to Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti City. It is the largest American permanent military base in Africa on a lease that ends in 2044. Camp Lemonnier is home to more than 4,000 personnel – mostly part of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. The US hosts visiting British military personnel as well.
The United States has established a second base at Chabelley Airfield for Drone operations since 2018. This has reduced aviation congestion at Lemonnier with conventional air force operations
Base Aerienne 188 (French Air Force). France, former colonial power over Djibouti, signed the 2011 Defence cooperation treaty that sets out the operational facilities granted to stationed French forces, which make up Frances largest military base abroad with some 1,450 troops, warships, aircraft and armoured vehicles in Djibouti. France hosts German & Spanish military forces.
Since 2011 the Japan Self-Defense Force Base Djibouti has 1,200 troops and is situated next to Camp Lemonnier. Japan’s Djibouti base is dedicated to curbing piracy, but also imports the Indo-Pacific power rivalry to the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean. A decade later, the pirates have been largely defeated, but Tokyo intends to expand its Djibouti base.
Italy’s establishment of a Djibouti base came at the same time as the launch of the European Union Naval Force (or Operation Atalanta) to protect vessels from armed piracy at sea off the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. This infrastructure is the first real operational logistic base of the Italian armed forces outside the national borders and has approximately 300 personnel.
Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are concerned about the expanding influence of the Shiite-led Iran, have been taking an interest in Djibouti as a base to prosecute their war in Yemen. Djibouti is a longstanding ally of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, it followed Riyadh’s lead and severed relations with Tehran. Djibouti is also a member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The alliance launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 to support the country’s internationally recognized government and fight the Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels, the Houthis (also known as the Ansarullah movement).
The UAE already has military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia that has yet to achieve international recognition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s rival Turkey – a key ally of Qatar – has its biggest overseas military base in Somalia’s Mogadishu where more than 10,000 Somali soldiers receive training.
India, as an alternative to Indian military presence in Djibouti, has secured strategic military bases in Oman, Singapore and Seychelles. It maintains a twin track strategy working on options for securing a military base of operations in Djibouti and Japan and India are discussing India’s use of Japanese military facilities in Djibouti.
So far, the land lease business to international players for these foreign bases both provide income and it is argued a degree of protection from external aggression.
The United States pays $63 million annually for ten-year lease on its base, while the Chinese reported to be paying $20 million a year besides the billions they are investing in building a railway, a port, an industrial park, and banks.
With very little in the way of natural resources or human capital, Djibouti’s government “has spared no effort to translate geopolitical fortune into commercial and political advantage,” says Matthew Bryden, the director of the think tank Sahan Research. There is an unproven argument raised that in the case of Djibouti, the leasing of multiple bases can be presented as a sign of skilful foreign policy.
“The aim is clear: Like Singapore, harness its unique geography astride a major commercial shipping route to become a global logistics, services, and trans-shipment hub in a world shifting toward Asia and the Indo-Pacific.”
Who can view Djibouti’s economic policy prospects of emerging as an important commercial hub in the Horn of Africa positively? While Djibouti handles an estimated 90% of landlocked Ethiopia’s maritime trade, and the foreign bases seen the form of cash, infrastructure, and economic opportunities arise from a very dependent and unsustainable economic model of development unless investment in an internal economic structure and activity is a priority.
Djibouti could be walking a fine line between neutrality and opportunism, says analysts. A dispute with the Dubai-based DP World pushed the UAE to fund ports and military bases in both Eritrea and Somaliland. After Djibouti reduced its diplomatic status with Qatar, the latter removed its peacekeeping forces from the Djibouti-Eritrea border, raising tensions of a renewed border dispute. And with the arrival of the Chinese, any friction with Western powers who are just a few miles away from each other might test the limits of Djiboutian diplomacy.”
Hosting military bases of different flags can pose a threat to the country’s ability to make independent decisions on political, economic, and social policies. The various – and sometimes conflicting – interests of international actors may influence the policy-making processes.
The western emphasis on China’s role, ironically given their own neo-colonialist practices, points to a situation of such economic dependence that Djibouti “risks threatening its autonomy”.
Like any other developing nation, Djibouti’s capacity to act independently has already been limited and overshadowed by the economic international order dominated by a few rich countries. Dependency on foreign loans could provide a leverage for others to influence and intervene in the country’s various domestic and international affairs. There are plenty of precedents that global actors toil to redesign domestic political divisions in the country in order to bring their own loyal ruler to power.
Not that it gets much mainstream western media attention, the country risks becoming a “nest of spies” where the international powers based there can watch each other closely. This congestion might also lead to friction among these powers, turning Djibouti into an arena of great power contention.