Djibouti (nicknamed as French Hong Kong of the Red Sea due to its cosmopolitan urbanism) lies on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (Horn of Africa) and serves as a gateway to Suez Canal which is considered as one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Djibouti being a port at such a strategic location serves as the lifeblood of its economy, providing the biggest source of income and employment for the nation. Being in such a proximity place with abundant resources this small country made itself a priced location for foreign military bases and ensured a steady flow of foreign assistance. China being a game-changer of the world economy in these past few decades there is no doubt it had placed its footsteps there. The two countries established relations way back in 1979.
Djibouti has become one among the country which has fallen into the trap of the ongoing process of revival ancient silk route by China. Although located a thousand miles away, it still has become a notable focal point for China. With the opening of the first overseas Chinese military base in Djibouti, this tiny country has become a testing ground for the mixing of China’s commercial and military interests abroad. Djibouti has become an experiment center for China in testing an emerging strategy of using its economic influence to advance its security interests. The overseas military outpost, is located a few kilometers away from the port at Doraleh was inaugurated on July 11, 2017, by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by deploying ships from the South Sea Fleet to officially flag off its operation. From this vantage point, the PLAN can overlook one of the most important maritime choke-points that are the Gulf of Aden through which an estimated 15% of global trade passes through it every year. The Gulf of Aden holds the tile as a renowned fourth important passage for oil exports and imports.
The base’s geostrategic location yields insights into China’s machinations for the region. Because of the strait’s proximity to Somalia and piracy originating from its shores, the PLAN has strong incentives to conduct frequent anti-piracy operations. The Chinese naval facility has also been engaging in four other key missions like intelligence collection, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operation support, and counterterrorism. Because of the opportunity to run anti-piracy missions United States, France, Japan, and Italy all maintain bases in Djibouti. However the Chinese have set their footprints stronger than these countries. In 2015, the Chinese government published white paper on national defense indicating two-tiered maritime strategy of “offshore waters defense and open seas protection”—marking the first time that Chinese interests in the “far seas” were elevated to the level of national security—and clearly stated Chinese ambitions of building a strong navy in international waters.
Apart from achieving its military ambitions, China has also established a remarkable feat in terms of economic relations with Djibouti. China’s extensive investments have made them rapidly gain a strategic foothold across the Horn of Africa. So far China has financed ports, railways, airports, and naval bases, as well as servers that house the entire internet for Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia. The import-export bank of China has loaned Djibouti nearly $1 billion, and other sources indicate that China has been providing nearly 40 percent of funding for Djibouti’s large-scale infrastructure and investment projects, including the Doraleh Multipurpose Port which was taken over by China Merchants port holding company (same which took over Hambantota in Sri Lanka), the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway, and the Ethiopia-Djibouti Water Pipeline.
Huge financing has been done for the Railway project to Ethiopia and internet cables. The cables will be built under the sea which will send data across the region, from Kenya to Yemen. The cable will connect to an internet hub housing servers mostly run by China’s state-owned telecommunications companies. The location of Djibouti has made China build these undersea cables which can also transmit data between continents. All regions stretching across from Kenya to Yemen entirely relay on Djibouti as a transit point for data transmission. Even ninety percent of powerful Ethiopia’s data transmission passes through the main chamber of Djibouti’s internet cables said Habib Daoud Omar, an engineer who manages the servers. This above move by China can be interpreted as its presence is everywhere. China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping will achieve to complete its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative projects at any cost.
The construction is fuelled mostly by lending from China’s state-run banks. Spindles of Chinese paved roads have unfurled across the continent, alongside with huge bridges, airports, dams and power plants. Apart from this, some of the other projects include the Addis Ababa-Djibouti high-speed electric train, Djibouti International Free Trade Zone, and Djibouti International Industrial Parks Operation, making space for cooperation with local communities. All of these projects are worth as much as US$ 5 billion which is funded and backed up by the Chinese government.
All these initiatives by China in Djibouti have to lead to a drastic improvement in the country’s infrastructure. However many scholars are arguing that Djibouti is just like another country that has fallen into the debt trap of China. Djibouti is projected to have a debt worth around eighty-eight percent of the country’s overall $1.72 billion GDP, of which China owns the lion’s share. Shortly soon it may result in handing over some of the key assets of the country into the hands of China.
The close proximity of the Chinese military outpost and U.S. military outpost in Camp Lemonnier has caused some grievances among the two nations. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads the U.S. Africa Command, said in a testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that the United States was “carefully monitoring Chinese encroachment and emergent military presence” in Djibouti. The rivalry between the two nations has become much more strained in 2018. However, China denies any controversial allegations by putting forth that the naval facility will serve as a logistics hub for its anti-piracy, humanitarian, and emergency evacuation missions. The live-ammunition drills conducted by the Chinese at their base should be interpreted as “legitimate and reasonable” exercises for counter-terrorism operations. However, the satellite images may throw light into the true purpose of the base. A retired Indian military intelligence officer noted that the 200-acre base at least 10 barracks, an ammunition depot, and a heliport.
Apart from this, the policymakers have identified that Djibouti and other countries relying on it are on high alert of debt distress. In a nutshell, it can be put that the venture of China in Djibouti is an experiment. The above-mentioned activities by China in Djibouti reflect a mix of economic and military interests. This dual node model allows the Chinese to punch down its significance of military ambition in Djibouti. China will replicate this strategy used in Djibouti very near in the future. The Chinese have already set their eyes on Jiwani Peninsula near the port of Gwadar for establishing their next military outpost. Nevertheless, Djibouti has proved to be the linchpin for China in the African continent. China will continue its policy of Belt and Road investments in Africa, which appear to incorporate provisions for more ports in East Africa, ensuring the safety and stability of those investments will of critical importance.