The small country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa made the headlines in May 2018 due to claims that soldiers on the new Chinese base were pointing lasers at U.S. aircraft landing at the American base. Djibouti is the only “official,” permanent American base in Africa,[i] and the first, and for the moment, only Chinese overseas military base. The close proximity of two major powers, along with provocative actions, easily leads to conclusions that conflict between great powers is possible.
Most recent research on the issue of bases in Djibouti tends to focus on the perceived conflict between American and Chinese interests in the country, as well as the use of the port facilities. A systematic assessment of Djibouti’s strategic importance is often lacking, however, as are analyses of the other countries who have bases located in the country, most notably the former colonial power, France. A substantial number of bases are crammed into a relatively small area. Does the race for bases mean that the great powers are preparing for conflict in the region, or is it rather a response to the common threats of trade disruption and terrorism? It is unlikely we will see the great powers pursuing military conflicts, provided all of the key participants remain focused on the economic benefits of secure trade in the region.
Geography and the Strategic Importance of Djibouti
Djibouti is a very small country in both land area (23,180 km2) and in population (845,267 people in July 2017).The World Bank calculates that 23% of the population lives in extreme poverty, and the economy is primarily dependent on foreign investment, with the rents received on the foreign military bases providing a substantial injection.[ii] Djibouti has been cooperating with other countries on major infrastructure projects to improve its economy, however. One includes rebuilding the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, which was financed and run entirely by the Chinese, and went into full operation in 2018.Several other major projects included improvements to Djibouti’s port facilities, Djibouti’s government created significant controversy, however, in February 2018, when it unilaterally cancelled Dubai-based DP World’s 30-year concession for the Doraleh Container Terminal, signed in 2006. The U.S. government has expressed concern that Djibouti will turn over control of this port to Chinese companies, which could cause problems for the U.S. presence.
In strategic terms, Djibouti is a “chokepoint base.” These are bases that are situated close to or on strategically important trade routes. According to Krepinevich and Work,
“Chokepoint bases can enhance a great power’s global mobility; decrease the global mobility of its adversaries (primarily by forcing them to take a more time-consuming and costly route when deploying their forces); or force a potential enemy to do battle under unfavorable circumstances (p. 17).”
Djibouti, located on Strait of Bab el Mandeb, is astride one of the largest trade routes in the world. Estimations for 2016 were that 4.8 million barrels of crude oil travel through the strait every day. The Bab el Mandeb Strait controls the access to the Suez Canal, with eight percent of total world goods shipments. The military presence of a major power in Djibouti could help keep the high traffic area open and free from piracy or insurgent and terrorist attacks,[iii] or, alternatively, close the Suez Canal to adversaries in the case of a conflict.
The Foreign Bases in Djibouti
As historians have carried out relatively little research on the construction of French colonial military bases, it is difficult to determine with certainty the date of the establishment of the French base. It appears that the Bab el Mandeb Strait was considered strategic from 1884 as a refueling station for the French fleet that was participating in the fighting for French colonies in East Asia. The official French colony, French Somaliland, was established in 1896.
With the exception of some studies of the importance of Djibouti in World War II, the French colonial military presence there has remained largely unresearched. More generally, the French global colonial defensive system has remained largely unexplored, unlike in studies of the British Empire.[iv] What is clear is that France maintained a relatively large base in Djibouti after independence in 1977, which tended to be seen as the most strategically important base in a network that includes Dakar, Abidjan, Libreville (permanent), the theoretically non-permanent presence in N’Djamena, as well as smaller bases in Niger, Cameroon, Mali, and the Central African Republic. This network also included Abu Dhabi (even though it is outside of Africa) after 2009.
As of late 2017, there were 1450 French soldiers stationed in Djibouti. Also included at the base are 6 attack helicopters (4 Pumas and 2 Gazelles), as well as an airbase with 7 Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft and a small naval base. French Special Forces are also present. The French base in Djibouti is part of the French system of what the Defense Ministry calls “prepositioned forces,” which are stationed at permanent forward bases aimed at supporting regional and extra-regional military operations. The French Etat-Major des Armées website gives the figure of 11,000 prepositioned soldiers worldwide.
France and Djibouti have a defense treaty which sets out the terms of the continued French military presence. In the treaty, France agree to guarantee the defense of Djibouti from external attack. It also provides for extensive technical military cooperation. In exchange, Djibouti continues to allow France to operate its base on its territory. It is unclear (as is the case with most of France’s bases in Africa), whether there is a secret clause that would allow France to intervene militarily in the case of internal security problems.
What is the purpose of the French base in Djibouti? One major issue is the security of maritime traffic in the Red Sea, as mentioned above, and a priority after 2011 was the fight against piracy. France participates extensively in the multinational EU operation against piracy in the Horn of Africa region, EUNAVFOR Atalanta, launched in 2008, and which is slated to come to an end in 2018.
A French Senate report in May 2018 on the French presence in Djibouti highlighted the strategic importance of the country for dealing with current crises in the region. French fighter aircraft were a “few minutes away” from Yemen or Somalia (surprising since France is not officially involved in fighting in either country), as well as from the airbase in Jordan and the Abu Dhabi base. Djibouti also serves as a support base for the French fleet transiting the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. Increased economic development in Ethiopia also means that Djibouti will become more economically important as Ethiopia’s primary port, and the French Senate argues that it would be a mistake to further drawdown forces due to this dynamic. The risk is that the Chinese will take over economic responsibility for the area in the case of French absence. There was considerable worry in the Senate debate about the issue that France’s influence in Djibouti was being overwhelmed by China, and that China, as the primary actor in the country, could ultimately close the straits if it chose in the future.
The United States
Due to the Soviet presence in Yemen and in Ethiopia, the U.S. sent non-permanent military elements to Djibouti starting in 1975, but did not have a permanent base in the country until 2002. The French Government leased the former Foreign Legion base of Camp Lemonnier to the Americans. The U.S. move to set up what is its only permanent U.S. base in Africa coincided with the beginning of the war on terrorism and the recognition of Somalia as a key haven for the Al Qaeda network. The base was significantly expanded to five times its original size.
The U.S. renewed its agreement with the Djibouti Government for ten years in 2014. According to estimates in spring 2018, the base currently houses 4,000 U.S. soldiers. The current ground force in country, the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, is tasked with “rapidly deploying in response to any crisis threatening U.S. personnel or property throughout CJTF-HOA [Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa].” There also is considerable cooperation between the French and American contingents in the country, which include joint desert warfare training programs.
In the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Posture Statement for 2018, Djibouti is described as essential for “combat readiness and the security of ships, aircraft, detachments, and personnel.” It also is for operations in East Africa, which as mentioned above, primarily means Somalia. The primary U.S. security interest in Africa, as evident in AFRICOM documents, is preventing Al-Shabaab from taking over Somalia. To avoid this outcome, the U.S. uses Special Forces and airstrikes directly against the Al Qaeda-allied group and provides training to the Somali National Army and supports the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The Al Qaeda presence in the region has always been seen as a threat to U.S. interests, though the change with President Trump has been to concentrate more direct U.S. military force against Al-Shabaab.
China’s New Base in Djibouti
The AFRICOM Posture Statement for 2018 expressed concern with the new Chinese base in Djibouti, saying that “U.S. Africa Command views security and access to Djibouti as a high priority. Consequently, we continue to monitor this development to ensure U.S. interests are not deterred.” Clearly, the U.S. sees China’s presence as a threat.
China first entertained the idea of opening a base in Djibouti in 2013, and began negotiations for land in 2015.The Chinese Government has been very specific in saying that the base is not intended for expanding China’s military presence. The official statement on the base’s purpose reads:
“The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia. The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.”
This would seem relatively unthreatening, but the size of the base has alarmed observers, as the site can house 10,000 soldiers. The French media has also reported Chinese exercises involving tanks and armored vehicles.
Many analysts argue that the base was built to increase Chinese influence and protect its economic interests in Africa. AFRICOM Commander General Thomas Waldhauser stated in March 2018 that the U.S. cannot match Chinese soft power or its investments in Africa, and that is why its strategic presence presents a threat to U.S. interests. China is Africa’s number one trading partner, and there may be as many as a million Chinese citizens working on the continent. Taking that civilian presence into consideration, it follows that China would want military forces present to evacuate its citizens if necessary, which is not a mission hostile to the interests of the other powers present in Djibouti.
The Chinese base would also obviously protect the very large amount of Chinese goods destined for Europe that transits the Suez Canal. This part of Chinese interests goes further, however. The Djibouti base is a part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), begun in 2013. This project is being put into place by increasing cooperation and building infrastructure in the countries on both land and the sea routes. Djibouti is seen as a key part of the maritime route for the BRI project, as well as a gateway for the African land routes. The U.S., however, tends to worry about the potential power that the BRI could bring to China, and the concomitant reduction in American power in a number of regions of the world, which makes the Djibouti base part of a larger controversy.
Japan’s Self-Defence Force established a base in Djibouti in 2011 to help fight piracy in the region and protect Japanese shipments to Europe. Japan has also used the base to support peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. Japan, however, like the U.S., has also been worried about the Chinese presence, and has increased investment in Djibouti as well as the size of the base since 2016.
It is reported that Saudi Arabia is building a base in Djibouti as part of expanded cooperation between the two countries. This development does not come as a surprise, as Djibouti is allied with Saudi Arabia in defence matters and Djibouti is strategically located for supporting the operations in Yemen.
Spain and Germany have a presence in Djibouti as both have clear economic interests in keeping the Bab el Mandab straits open. Their presence is through participation in the EUNAVFOR operation. The Spanish and German contingents reportedly use the French base for their operations.
Italy has its own, relatively small base in Djibouti, which it calls a National Military Support Base for its navy. The base was built in 2013 and 2014.Little current information is available about the Italian interests in the region, beyond support for EUNAVFOR. In April 2018, however, Italian and Chinese troops held a joint exercise to provide medical support in an emergency within Djibouti.
It is important to look at how competing interests among various powers are playing out in Djibouti. In comparing interests above, it is striking as to how many of the national interests in East Africa are common to a number of the powers involved. A major common interest is ensuring the continued flow of trade through the Bab el Mandeb Straits. For this purpose, stabilizing the situation in Somalia and eliminating piracy seems to be in the interest of all of the countries involved.
The potential for conflict appears to be mainly over two major issues – one power shutting down a key chokepoint of world trade, and the competition for influence in the region. The former seems unlikely, as the presence of troops from other countries would likely make one power very nervous about attempting to close the straits. The proximity of multiple bases would likely have a deterrent effect on any unilateral action of this nature. The second issue about influence appears to be mainly a conflict between the U.S. and China for power that is playing out on a global level. It seems unlikely, however, that either country would provoke a conflict over Djibouti that would hamper the flow of trade from Asia to Europe.
The claim in a 15 January 2018 article in Politico that “World War III will start here,” is unlikely in the case of Djibouti. There is indeed a competitive race for bases and influence in Djibouti, but the fundamental strategic interests of the powers coincide on the major issue, which is to keep the straits open. There are other disagreements and conflicts, but as long as the main priority remains to ensure continued trade flows, armed conflict would not be beneficial for any of the countries involved.
[i] The U.S. also has significant military deployments in Niger, Somalia and Cameroon.
[ii] This assertion was denied in April 2018 by Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who claimed in an interview in Jeune Afrique that the rents for the bases made up less than 10% of the country’s GDP. He stated that the U.S. paid $58 million/year for its base, France 30 million euros/year, the Chinese $20 million/year and the Japanese $3.5 million/year.