In establishing a base in Djibouti, China will join France, Italy, Japan and the United States in having military bases there. Djibouti is a major support facility for warships and aircraft engaged in the EU’s anti-piracy mission in the region, Operation Atalanta. Other navies, including those of Iran, Malaysia, Russia and India, also make use of Djibouti’s ports. The widespread use of Djibouti reflects its attributes, particularly its strategic location near both key shipping routes and regional ‘hot spots’, and its well-developed port facilities.
These attributes help explain China’s choice of Djibouti as the location of its first overseas military base. China also claims its base will assist Djibouti’s economic and social development, and support its contribution to peace and stability both in Africa and worldwide.
Over the past decade, China has been heavily involved in anti-piracy, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian relief missions in Africa and western Asia. It joined anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 and evacuated its overseas citizens from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In 2015, China also took part in its first Mediterranean joint naval exercises with Russia. Similar operations in the future will be facilitated by the Djibouti base.
The Djibouti base will be a critical node of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing’s recently announced Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative to build a peaceful and prosperous 21st Century Maritime Silk Road includes a reference to the role of Djibouti as an element of the BRI.
Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977 and France remains the dominant foreign power in the country. It has nearly 2000 troops there, supporting its counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations elsewhere in Africa. From its Djibouti base, France has extensive intelligence and logistical cooperation with the United States, as well as with other multilateral forces operating in Djibouti.
Up to 4000 US personnel, both military and civilian, including special operations forces, are based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. This is the base for US drone surveillance and attacks, as well as the logistics hub for anti-piracy and other multilateral missions in the region.
Djibouti has become increasingly attractive to both its neighbouring countries, as well as to the extra-regional powers that want to establish a strategic presence in the region. It has benefited economically and politically from the rapid economic transformation in Ethiopia for which it is a key transport node; shifts in US strategy in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula since 9/11; and the upsurge in piracy along the Gulf of Aden and Somali coasts. It is the sole deep-water port in the region able to handle contemporary large container vessels.
The upsurge in piracy off Somalia in 2008–2009 provided the initial justification for countries to establish a strategic footprint in this critically important and volatile region through either increasing their existing naval deployments in the area or by sending warships there for the first time. Despite the downturn in piracy in the region since, these naval forces have not gone home. On the contrary, as shown by China’s new base, the tendency has been towards increasing naval presences. All this activity shows just how naval operations can be leveraged for geopolitical purposes.
China’s initiatives in the Indian Ocean — including the BRI, increased naval deployments and the establishment of facilities, particularly in Djibouti and Gwadar in Pakistan — have disturbed India’s geostrategic advantage in the Indian Ocean and plans to be the ‘net security provider’ in the region.
China and India both hold similar fears of containment or encirclement by the other. China sees itself as surrounded by adversarial forces — India to the south, and Japan and some Southeast Asian countries to the east, as well as the over-arching presence of the United States throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, India feels threatened by China, particularly along its northern border with the Himalayan territorial dispute, and the burgeoning Chinese naval presence to its south, including the regular deployment of submarines.
The United States is understandably wary of its new neighbour in Djibouti. Nowhere else in the world will US and Chinese operational military forces be located so close to each other. The United States will see the Chinese base as a threat to the security of the highly sensitive surveillance and intelligence collection operations it launches from Camp Lemonnier. China’s presence in Djibouti will also have the consequence of bringing the United States and India closer together: united in their efforts to counter China’s increased regional presence.
The multinational military activities concentrated within the relatively limited geographical confines of Djibouti could provide an environment for new forms of maritime and military cooperation. But it’s more likely that Djibouti will become a hot-bed of intrigue, espionage and counter-espionage as the separate military forces closely watch each other’s activities.
Sam Bateman is Adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.