China in Djibouti: Re-writing the History Books

– Fred Johnston

In July of 2017, two warships carrying military personnel set sail from the northeast coastal city of Zhanjiang in China. Their destination was the small East African nation of Djibouti, where China has established their first permanent base outside of the South China Sea. This enhances the country’s military presence in Africa, as over 3,000 troops have been stationed in Mali, Liberia and South Sudan for peacekeeping missions over the last few years.

The global hegemon has been making unprecedented strides to consolidate power. Following last year’s opening of military installation, concerns are being raised over the motives behind China’s actions.

Context

The official claim from Beijing is that the site is a logistics facility, which also provides medical and humanitarian assistance to China’s new-found allies within the region. Additionally, with the announcement of military deployment to Djibouti, the PRC claimed that it is not seeking military expansion. These assertions are somewhat legitimate, considering that the Chinese navy has conducted surveillance missions in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and over one million Chinese nationals are based in Africa. Could an ulterior motive exist, however? Djibouti is a largely desert country with no natural resources, unlike its oil-rich neighbours. Why would the Chinese and others have an interest in the former French colonial outpost? The most obvious reason is for the geographic location of the east African nation – Djibouti lies on the edge of the Gulf of Aden, and leads to the Suez Canal, where ships containing 4.6 million barrels of oil pass through the passage every day.

Neo-colonialism

The Chinese are not alone in holding a military presence in the country – Djibouti was originally a French colonial post and a French contingent remains today. They are joined by military personnel from Japan, Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia and, not surprisingly, the US, who took charge of a former French outpost in response to the September 11 attacks. With several other significant tenants on this patch, this could be a contributing factor in selecting Djibouti as their initial post outside of Southeast Asia.

The motives behind the measures from Beijing are understandable to a point. One can assume the PRC are protecting their recent African investment activity. Djibouti’s neighbour, Ethiopia, is a nation that has benefitted from China’s presence over the years, with 279 companies operating in the region between 2012 and 2017, with projects worth over $570 million. The necessity for security in the region is therefore perhaps a legitimate measure, as China has previously had to evacuate hundreds of nationals from Libya, Yemen and Sudan over the past last few years owing to regional conflicts.

Chinese firms have also invested in Djibouti. Along with a Chinese military presence, and the $20 million per year over 10 years Djibouti will receive from this, Chinese firms have invested heavily in the East African nation, including in a multimillion-dollar free trade zone, a water pipeline from Ethiopia, a railway to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and a new international airport.

International Concerns

With all of this in mind, doubts remain over the motives of these deals. When the Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh visited Beijing late last year, he was treated to the highest honor of a state visit, and President Xi Jinping spoke of the “high regard” he held towards a “strategic partnership” while the Djibouti head of state was greeted with a military parade and flag-waving children. It smacks of dubiety, given the relative sizes in population and economies of the two countries.

President Guelleh unsurprisingly spoke highly of the partnership, and relations between the two countries. He also made strides to please Beijing in a different manner – announcing Djibouti’s support of the One China Policy and a new strategic partnership with China, along with promoting China’s progress under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Concerns over OBOR stem from China’s neighbors, chief among which is India. Drawing inspiration from the Silk Road trading route, the ambitious infrastructure project connects China with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa, and 40% of global GDP along with it. The concern from Delhi has been one of sovereignty – Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar stated in 2017, “China is very sensitive about its sovereignty. The economic corridor passes through an illegal territory, an area that we call Pak-occupied Kashmir. You can imagine India’s reaction at the fact that such a project has been initiated without consulting us.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi reinforced this point, asserting, “Connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations.”

As China has built its military presence and private investment into Africa as a whole, as well as several reports claiming a naval base is being considered in Pakistan, one could argue that Beijing is garnering an unrivaled level of support, and that this can only further intensify concerns raised by India.

Conclusion

With China’s establishment of a permanent military presence in Djibouti to supplement the increased investment and peacekeeping missions in Africa, there are several concerns arising from these actions. Whether this unease is justifiable remains to be seen, and as the cliché goes “only time will tell.”

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