U.S., China, Others Build Bases In Djibouti – What Could Go Wrong?

U.S., China, Others Build Bases In Djibouti – What Could Go Wrong?

thecipherbrief.com · May 30, 2017

May 30, 2017 | Kaitlin Lavinder
Photo: U.S. Navy/Drae Parker

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The small East African country of Djibouti – which sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal and a shipping chokepoint in the sea lanes connecting Africa with the Middle East and India – hosts seven foreign militaries. The U.S. and China are now neighbors, and Saudi Arabia is coming soon.

The U.S. owns the biggest base there. Since 2002, Camp Lemonnier has occupied more than 600 acres of Djibouti’s land and hosted around 4,000 American military and civilian personnel. It is the U.S. Africa Command’s main base in the Horn of Africa, a strategically vital location for fighting terrorists on the continent and monitoring piracy in the waters off Djibouti’s coast.

The French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Japanese have joined the U.S. as fellow land leasers, with similar strategic and economic interests. Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, has a strong interest in Yemen, because Djibouti sits just across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. The Saudis support Yemen’s government in its ongoing war against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Washington has committed support to the Saudis for this fight.

But Beijing’s interests in Djibouti remain murky – and potentially at odds with U.S. interests in the region. “They view that [the base in Djibouti] as part of their long-term strategy to become a global power, not just a regional power, and they are spending an extraordinary amount of effort and investment,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats earlier this month.

China is paying Djibouti $20 million a year to host its first overseas base. That’s actually a bargain compared to the U.S. annual lease payment of $63 million. Some 300 to 400 Chinese military personnel will live at the base, situated a few miles from Camp Lemonnier.

“The facilities [in Djibouti] will mainly be used for logistical support and personnel recuperation of the Chinese armed force conducting such missions as maritime escort in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance,” Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense, said last February.

However, the base construction also appears to be part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative – which aims for massive investment in and development of trade routes on land and at sea in an area covering around 65 percent of the world’s population, according to Kevin Sneader, chairman of offices in Asia for McKinsey & Company. Most of the goods that China exports to Europe – at an estimated value of $1 billion a day – go through the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden.

“That ‘One Belt’ road situation gives them expedited access to Europe, but also access to the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East,” said Coats. China’s interest in Djibouti, he said, is to advance its aspirations to become a global power.

Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute in London, told The Cipher Brief that having a base in Djibouti will allow the Chinese to “better protect trade flows.”

“China has, over the years, gotten increasingly involved in peacekeeping,” Paice said. “It has combat troops in both South Sudan and Mali. It’s logical that it needs an actual base somewhere in Africa, which is really no different from the Americans saying that they need Camp Lemonnier as a headquarters for operations in Africa, whether in peacekeeping or counterterror or whatever. That is the military rationale.”

General Thomas Waldhauser, head of the U.S. Africa Command at Camp Lemonnier, said at a Pentagon press briefing last March that both sides are “learning.” He said the U.S. will try “to establish a relationship with them [the Chinese] and try to work with them where we can.”

Still, many in U.S. policy and national security circles take a hawkish stance toward China. At an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in May 2016, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, then director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and now the President’s National Security Advisor, said that Chinese officials are “challenging U.S. interests at the far reaches of American power” in order to “expand territory and expand their influence at the expense of U.S. interests and the security of our partners in the [Asia Pacific] region.”

In a February 2016 letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chris Smith (R-NJ), and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) wrote, “[We are] worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counter-terrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region.”

President Donald Trump has recently seemed to take a softer tone toward China, telling Fox News after his April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two world leaders “have a good chemistry together.” But Timothy Heath, a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, wrote in The Cipher Brief, “Although the summit aimed to cultivate an aura of cooperation, the reality of increasing disagreement and competition lurks beneath the surface of the U.S.-China relationship.”

Heath noted that Beijing appeared to be positioning itself for “a contest” for international leadership, in light of the “vacuum left by President Trump’s disinterest in global issues.”

If this is indeed how Washington views China – as a country bent on world domination – then the new Chinese base in Djibouti could become “intensely problematic,” said Paice.

Moreover, Chinese soft power influence is undoubtedly growing in East Africa. A $14 billion infusion of money for infrastructure development, widely publicized in Djibouti, “has generated enormous goodwill with the population,” Joseph Braude, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, reported in the Huffington Post.

Braude pointed to cultural ventures China is building, notably, the new Confucius Institute in Djibouti City.

“As Chinese influence grows in Djibouti, its ability to influence the government’s foreign policy and security strategies promises to grow along with it,” he wrote.

Djibouti’s Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh, told The Cipher Brief that China is a “friend” and Djibouti has “very good relations with China.”

In response to the question of whether this new Chinese base will have an impact on U.S. interests in the region, Ambassador Doualeh said, “We expect all countries to cooperate based on international law.”

His remarks echoed those of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who met in Djibouti last month with President Ismail Omar Guelleh and then told reporters, “International law is critical to keeping the waterways open, and it’s very important we maintain the same degree of cooperation in that regard in the future, as other countries come in.”

The U.S. and China could join forces in the fight against al Shabaab terrorists in the Horn of Africa, al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, and pirates off Djibouti’s coast.

“Proximity can lead to growth of trust and understanding, even collaboration,” Paice said. “But whether it is going to be a good thing or not is going to be up to the two sides.”

“I’m quite sure that if there is any aggression in the air as this base becomes operational,” he added, “that will be from the U.S. side, not the China side.”

View our expert commentary on this topic:

Djibouti Wins Jackpot – Renting Out Desert for Military Bases, by Edward Paice, Director of the Africa Research Institute

Djibouti Keeps Wary Eye on Eritrea, Somali Pirates, Al Shabaab, by Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Ambassador of Djibouti to the United States

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.

Djibouti Wins Jackpot –  Renting Out Desert for Military Bases

thecipherbrief.com · May 30, 2017

May 30, 2017 | Edward Paice

Edward Paice
Director, Africa Research Institute

China is constructing its first overseas military base just a few miles from one of the United States’ largest and most important foreign bases — Camp Lemonnier in the small East African nation of Djibouti. Five other nations have put up bases there, and Saudi Arabia will soon join them. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute in London, why China chose Djibouti, what the U.S. thinks about it, and why several other nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, focusing military attention on the coast of the Horn of Africa.

The Cipher Brief: Why is China building its first overseas military base in Djibouti?

Edward Paice: Djibouti has great strategic importance. It is located on the Babel el Mandeb. It’s only 20 or 30 miles from the Arabian Peninsula, opposite Yemen. Estimates vary but about 30 percent of the world’s shipping goes through there and onto Suez. From a trade point of view, Djibouti is a kind of chokepoint. China’s trade to Europe goes mostly through that route, and that’s a substantial proportion of a billion dollars a day. Part of the rationale is that in the development of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, this is a key point and will enable it to better protect trade flows. That’s the trade argument.

Militarily, it’s pretty well placed for access to both Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Djibouti is almost one leg in each – and that’s been attractive to a number of other powers. China has, over the years, gotten increasingly involved in peacekeeping, it has cited its desire to play a greater role in peacekeeping, and it has combat troops in both South Sudan and Mali. It’s logical that it needs an actual base somewhere in Africa, which is really no different from the Americans saying that they need Camp Lemonnier as a headquarters for operations in Africa, whether in peacekeeping or counterterror or whatever. That is the military rationale.

Why Djibouti? In theory, it could have been further down the coast in Somaliland or further up the coast in Eritrea. Other countries have built, are building, or are negotiating to build bases in both of those countries. The UAE, for example, has a base in Assab in Eritrea, and it has just recently negotiated to construct one at Berbera in Somaliland. But I think that the attraction of Djibouti is that it has what you would call a stable government – that doesn’t mean it’s a government that’s particularly appealing, but the president and his coterie are extremely dug in there; so arguably, the political situation is more stable in Djibouti than either Eritrea or Somaliland. The factors that may affect stability in Eritrea are the long running border dispute with Ethiopia, and China would certainly have no desire to get involved in that situation overtly if it ever flares up again. The situation in Somaliland from a security point of view is pretty stable, but it is Somalia’s neighbor, where things are pretty far from being stable. Although China may have also had discussions with the Somaliland government – I don’t know.

A further reason to pick Djibouti is that China has already spent substantial sums revitalizing the railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and substantial money on various other infrastructure developments in Djibouti itself. It’s a confluence of these factors – trade, military, and stability in the host country’s government.

TCB: Can you lay out on the flipside what exactly Djibouti gets out of this arrangement? Going along with that, does the fact that Djibouti is a stable government, surrounded by unstable governments in Eritrea and Somalia, contribute to its desire to host this Chinese military presence in the country?

EP: I wouldn’t say that Eritrea is actually unstable, but there is a greater risk of instability both there and in Somaliland because of relations in their neighbors.

TCB: Mohamed Siad Doualeh, the Djibouti Ambassador to the U.S., lists Eritrea and Somalia as top security concerns for Djibouti right now.

EP: That’s always going to be the case because it’s a very small country waged between the two, and periodically, relations between Djibouti and Somaliland have been fractious – not war-like, but fractious. At the moment, Eritrea and Djibouti are still going through an arbitration process following various flare-ups on their border between 2000 and 2010, so relations between Djibouti and both neighbors are not great.

What’s in it for Djibouti? Money. Pure and simple. This is a very autocratic regime that has done extraordinarily little for its people, and this is a fantastic get-rich-quick scheme – to rent bits of desert to foreign powers. It’s as simple as that, I’m afraid. You have a highly autocratic government – not that its neighbors aren’t autocratic – and also one that’s extremely self-enriching. That is the name of the game – they want to get rich.

TCB: You mentioned the U.S. military presence at Camp Lemonnier. What are the dynamics likely to be between the U.S. and China in Djibouti? Is there contention from the U.S. side?

EP: This is quite a curious situation — that you have bases of U.S. and China just a few miles apart. Djibouti is like something out of a novel. It’s almost unbelievable that this country, ruled by a pretty despotic government, is now everyone’s favorite place to build a military base.

No doubt, it will be an unusual situation for the U.S. military to deal with, but it depends on which lens both sides choose to look through. China’s rhetoric on this is extremely placatory — that it is not there to upset anybody, that it is there to protect its own interests, to be able to protect its own citizens in Africa. Everything China says this base is for would be claimed by anybody else who’s building a base there, or anywhere else in the region. It only becomes intensely problematic if you view it though a lens, which I think hawks do, that China is bent on world domination and will use military means alongside commercial means.

But proximity could be used by both sides as a positive experiment, and therefore there is potential to deescalate the war of words when it crops up over some other area, like the South China Sea. Proximity can be a good thing. Proximity can lead to growth of trust and understanding, even collaboration. But whether it is going to be a good thing or not is going to be up to the two sides. I’m quite sure that if there is any aggression in the air as this base becomes operational that will be from the U.S. side, not the China side. China will be extremely diplomatic in its language and its actions.

TCB: Do you think President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have the more hawkish view that China is bent on world domination?

EP: I’m not an expert on U.S. military policy, but I sense as a newspaper reader that the general feeling within the U.S. military is quite hawkish toward China. And that may be justified. I’m not criticizing it; I’m just stating how it appears.

China has been present in Africa for centuries. Sure, there has been a very rapid escalation in its engagement with Africa since 2000. But that tends to be viewed with far greater suspicion by the U.S. than it does certainly on the part of African government, but also in most European ones. I think there are opportunities in Africa for everybody to work better together, and some people realize this. The collaboration between the World Bank and various Chinese financing and construction entities in Africa is increasing. But on the military side, China’s presence almost anywhere outside a certain distance from its own border is viewed with intense suspicion in the U.S.

TCB: Any final thoughts?

EP: One of the reasons for the appeal of Djibouti as well is because of the war in Yemen. The U.S. has been in Djibouti since 2001 – a long time. China is not particularly interested, at least not directly interested, in the war in Yemen. But many of the other parties who are building bases up and down that coast in the Horn of Africa are very interested in Yemen, and that’s why they’ve taken bases. Saudi Arabia will be the next one to have a base in Djibouti. The UAE built its base in Eritrea at Assab and is negotiating about one in Somaliland to support its activities in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.

The interesting thing is that at the moment all these parties within a stretch of coast a few hundred kilometers long, if they’re not on the same side, they’re not on different sides of the same conflict. They don’t need to rub up against each other at the moment. But you could easily see a situation in which these parties get a lot more antagonistic toward each other. Things are really heating up in that neck of the woods. And if you introduce Egypt as well, which may also end up building a base somewhere on that coast, you’re ending up with a situation that could lead to cooperation and rapprochement, but there is also a quite high potential to spark an incident between two parties; it’s a sheer fact of life with such proximity.

What happens in Mogadishu is just going to extend this chain of bases further south. Turkey would love to have a base in Mogadishu, and any number of other countries would like that as well, like the UAE. It’s on many countries’ radars, but at the moment, when the instability of the situation in Somalia in general is still so high, I can’t see anyone being keen to build something at the scale of Camp Lemonnier there.

The Author is Edward Paice

Edward Paice is the Director of Africa Research Institute. He studied African history as part of his degree course at Cambridge University and returned to Cambridge as a Visiting Fellow at Magdalene College in 2003-04. In the 1990s and early 2000s he was based in eastern Africa where, among other projects, he wrote the first guidebook to independent Eritrea. Since then, he has written and lectured extensively on diverse African topics and is the author of “‘Tip and Run’: The Untold Tragedy of… Read More

Djibouti Keeps Wary Eye on Eritrea, Somali Pirates, Al Shabaab

thecipherbrief.com · May 30, 2017

May 30, 2017 | Ambassador Mohamed Siad Doualeh

Mohamed Siad Doualeh
Ambassador of Djibouti to the United States

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a trip to Djibouti in April in a show of friendship with the small East African country, at a time when other nations are also bolstering relations with Djibouti. China, for example, is building its first overseas military base there, just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military’s primary base in the Horn of Africa. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked H.E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Djibouti’s Ambassador to the United States, about the strength of relations with the U.S. and top security threats that the U.S. and Djibouti are watching.

The Cipher Brief: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Djibouti in April. After his meeting with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, he issued a statement saying that the partnership between the U.S. and Djibouti is “strengthening.” What does that mean? And how close is the current defense/military relationship between the U.S. and Djibouti?

Ambassador H. E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh: First of all, the relationship between Djibouti and the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds as of late. As far back as after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Djibouti willingly agreed to host the U.S. army in Djibouti. Ever since, the relationship has been strengthening.

To the visit – it went extremely well. The interaction between Secretary Mattis and President Guelleh highlighted the importance of the Djibouti-U.S. relationship. Mattis expressed his gratitude to Djibouti for its loyalty. And we also expressed to Secretary Mattis how proud we were to be part of the week-long tour in the region.

The relationship is strengthening, because on May 18, we had a bilateral meeting between Djibouti and the United States, the third of its kind, where we had a high-level delegation coming from Djibouti to interact with U.S. officials and discuss ways of further advancing the many aspects of the cooperation between Djibouti and the United States. It was a very successful meeting, with a lot of preparatory work, some key deliverables, and a lot of homework. It has proven how relevant such a forum is to advance bilateral relations.

TCB: You were there when Secretary Mattis visited Djibouti, and you mentioned to me that you went beforehand for preparations. Is there anything that stands out in your mind as the highlight of his trip?

MD: A desire on both parts to emphasize the strong relations; I was there to see the words used and the warmth of the relationship so I can testify to it. The Secretary of Defense said to Djibouti, you are loyal, you are a reliable friend, and the U.S. does not forget their friends. We felt also that we had to convey a message to the U.S. to reemphasize how we value the strategic partnership between Djibouti and the United States. So it was a significant moment, as he was the first high-official from the new U.S. administration to visit.

TCB: At the same time the U.S. and Djibouti are making this show of strong relations, another country is coming into your country, and that’s China, which is building its first overseas military base there. Why is this happening? What is in this for China? And what’s in it for Djibouti?

MD: We also have very good relations with China. They are involved economically, as they were crucial in funding major infrastructure projects in Djibouti. And then they made the request for Djibouti to host a logistical base that would man around 300 to 400 soldiers. So we accepted, because China is also a friend.

TCB: Will this have any impact on U.S. interests or operations in the region?

MD: We expect all countries to cooperate based on international law. And we also expect all nations present on our soil to respect Djibouti sovereignty.

TCB: Turning now to some specific threats facing Djibouti, General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, has recently talked about piracy off the coast of Djibouti. He said that he doesn’t think there’s a trend there yet, but it’s something that the U.S. is going to continue to watch. Do you think piracy is a trend developing again in the area?

MD: I think we are all surprised to see the recent spike [in piracy]. We don’t know any specific cause that can be attributed to the recent spike. Some say it’s because of the wide-spread drought, and the ensuing famine. Others say that it may be due to complacency and the relaxation of security procedures, the lack of vigilance from shipping companies. But we do feel that it’s a cause for concern, and it stands to reason that while there is an effort currently aimed at assessing the resurgent threat, companies should shore up their defenses at sea.

Piracy will remain a threat until there is total peace in Somalia.

TCB: What are some other top security concerns right now for you, for Djibouti?

MD: We continue to watch the situation in Somalia. We support the request by the African Union (AU) that was made for a surge in AMISOM troops to help us decisively degrade and destroy al Shabaab in Somalia.

The other concern we have is the behavior of the state of Eritrea and the stalemate in the border dispute with Djibouti and the fact that our prisoners – the remaining prisoners of war – that they detained incommunicado in Eritrea are still there. We don’t have any updates on their whereabouts, their health, and this is a cause for serious concern both for the state of Djibouti and the families concerned.

Eritrea is also engaged in an effort to equip, train, and recruit rebels from Djibouti with the ultimate objective of destabilizing Djibouti – another serious concern.

TCB: Are there documented cases of that?

MD: Of course.

TCB: Do you have any numbers – for example, how many Djibouti citizens have been recruited as rebels by Eritreans?

MD: Around 200, but the number fluctuates. We have shared this information with the UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea.

TCB: And what about on the Somalia front? You’ve worked on Somalia in the past. You were on the Ministerial Delegation to the Special Session of the Security Council on Sudan and Somalia. How does that color your view of the security situation there? Do you believe that the threat is bigger than some other people think it is?

MD: No. What we see is that there has been constant political progress in Somalia. But on the security front, the threat that we had a decade ago was warlords torpedoing every effort to peace. Today, the threat that we have is al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is the major impediment to peace and security in Somalia today. We had hoped that the international peacekeeping support we have in Somalia today would be instrumental in boosting Somalia’s own security apparatus. But to date, I think progress needs to be made on that front for AMISOM to exit.

The London conference on May 11 helped us define and design a security architecture for Somalia to really help Somalia decisively defeat al Shabaab. We will help coordinate international efforts to support Somalia.

TCB: Certainly the United States understands the threat of terrorist organizations such as al Shabaab, not just in the African region, but also how those terrorist groups connect across the world and can threaten U.S. national security interests. At the same time, you mentioned the UN monitoring group and how it plays a central part to securing places such as Somalia. The Trump Administration has talked about cutting U.S. aid to organizations such as the UN and UN peacekeeping missions. What are your thoughts on that?

MD: On the UN the peacekeeping operations, an effort is currently underway to try to assess which peacekeeping missions are correctly executing their mandates, based on objective assessments. So let’s wait to see how the assessment of each peacekeeping mission goes before we jump to any conclusion. But we agree that they should be fit for purpose.

TCB: Do you have any final thoughts?

MD: The African continent has a lot of potential, and we’re extremely happy that in his May 3rd address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underscored the potential of Africa.

Africa in general, and Djibouti in particular, values the relationship with the United States, and I think the future is bright. We need to really work together, talk as often as we can, and try to chart the way forward together in a collaborative effort to try to tackle the obstacles together.

The Author is Mohamed Siad Doualeh

His Excellency Mr. Mohamed Siad Doualeh is the Ambassador of Djibouti to the United States and the Permanent Representative of Djibouti to the United Nations. Before this, he served as Special Envoy to the IGAD-led Process for Somalia as a member of the IGAD Facilitation Committee. In that position, he was a key member of the Djibouti ministerial delegation to the special session of the Security Council on Sudan and Somalia held in Nairobi, Kenya. He also briefly served as Special Envoy to the… Read More

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