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Monica Wang is an intern with the Asia Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a student at Yale University.
Djibouti may be located thousands of miles away from both the United States and China, but it is becoming an increasingly salient focal point in U.S.-China relations. Before he was dismissed, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stopped by this tiny Horn of Africa country during his first (and last) official trip to Africa in March. His objective was to reiterate America’s commitment to Djibouti, which is home to the only U.S. military base in Africa. His visit also spoke to the U.S. desire to remain relevant in Africa, where China’s presence is rapidly expanding. Starting with Djibouti, China is testing an emerging strategy of using its economic influence to advance its security interests.
I was in Djibouti almost a year ago when the country finished building the Doraleh Multipurpose Port. At the open-air ceremony celebrating the port’s completion last May, foreign dignitaries and local officials alike donned suits despite the sweltering heat. A red carpet was rolled out from Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s air-conditioned tent to the podium, where he and Chinese representatives took turns commending Djibouti and its partner, the state-owned China Merchants Group (CMG), on this joint achievement. Lines of Djiboutian construction workers flanked the podium under the glare of the morning sun; crowds of Chinese engineers and staff cheered from nearby tents.
Two months after the Doraleh Multipurpose Port was inaugurated, the Chinese and Djiboutians convened again to celebrate the completion of another construction masterpiece: China’s first overseas military base. Located just a few minutes’ drive away from the commercial port at Doraleh, the Chinese military facility, which was built for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is reported to have exclusive use of at least one of the port’s berths. From this new vantage point, the PLAN is able to overlook one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world: the Gulf of Aden, specifically the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which an estimated 12.5 to 20 percent of global trade passes every year. (The narrowest part of Bab-el-Mandeb is only 18-miles wide.) The proximity between port and base reflects the integration of Chinese commercial and military interests as part of a strategy to project power abroad, even while Beijing maintains the guise of noninterference.
As in many other places in Africa, China’s economic footprint in Djibouti is outsized and unmatched. But unlike in other cases, China does not seek raw materials from Djibouti. Instead, the prize is the country’s strategic location on the eastern edge of the African continent and the western shore of the Indian Ocean. The number and scale of Chinese infrastructure projects in Djibouti have increased substantially since the government first announced its intention to construct a military facility there in 2015. All of them are accounted for by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s grand-scale connectivity and development plan. For example, the Ethiopian-Djiboutian electric railway that was completed a year ago—the first of its kind in Africa—was a $4 billion project undertaken by Chinese construction companies and financed by Chinese banks. More recently, the Export-Import Bank of China funded a $300 million-plus water pipeline system that will transport drinking water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. The amount of money poured into these projects is all the more astounding considering that Djibouti is a country with less than one million people, a GDP below $1.8 billion, and almost no natural resources.
The Chinese government justified its military facility in terms of international obligations, specifically China’s willingness to contribute to humanitarian relief, peace and stability in Africa, and “Djibouti’s socio-economic development.” A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson cited Chinese participation in Gulf of Aden escort missions—international counter-piracy operations to which China has been a regular contributor since 2008—and United Nations peacekeeping missions across Africa as examples of China working within the boundaries set by international organizations. The Chinese also emphasized friendly Sino-Djiboutian relations and Djibouti’s explicit agreement as preconditions for the military facility. In fact, Beijing is adamant about calling the base a “support facility” for replenishing the Chinese navy and downplaying the military aspect. This official stance is in keeping with the noninterference principle that the government has long promoted in foreign policy, even though the base offers the potential for China to influence the internal affairs of nearby countries, especially those currently mired in civil conflicts.
China’s ability to minimize the base’s significance is also helped by the fact that it is not the first foreign power to stake a military claim in Djibouti. A former French colony, Djibouti has hosted French forces since the 19th century. Italian, German, and Spanish militaries are active in the country as well, mostly for Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations and UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa. Even Japan’s first overseas military base since World War II is located in Djibouti. And most interestingly, the Chinese base that opened last August sits merely eight miles away from Camp Lemonnier, where more than 4,000 American personnel are stationed for the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The development marks the first time the two superpowers and their militaries are in such close long-term contact with each other.
Nevertheless, a closer look at China’s official defense strategy makes clear that the logistics base in Djibouti is part of a broader Chinese strategic imperative. In 2015, the Chinese government published a white paper on national defense that introduced a 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 blue-water navy. Taking both Chinese investments in resource-less Djibouti and this white paper into account, it becomes clear that commercial projects through the BRI in East Africa paved the way for realizing PLAN aspirations in the far seas. The BRI extended the maritime silk road through the Indian Ocean onto the African continent, thereby justifying the presence of a Chinese security enterprise to protect economic interests and maintain open commercial channels. At the same time, a more secure environment, especially with the military base in Djibouti, will conceivably attract more commercial entities to both land and sea.
It is unlikely that the PLAN facility in Djibouti will be China’s last mixed commercial and military venture abroad. Before Chinese intentions in Djibouti were clear, a 2014 article by experts from the PLAN-affiliated Chinese Naval Research Institute listed the following seven places as possible candidates for a Chinese military outpost: Bay of Bengal; Sittwe, Myanmar; Gwadar, Pakistan; Djibouti, Djibouti; Seychelles; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. These places were explicitly mentioned because of their strategic or economic importance—but most likely both. For example, Sittwe is situated along the Bay of Bengal, and building a military facility there could help the Chinese manage traffic passing through the Strait of Malacca from the west. It also marks the start of the Myanmar pipeline, which supplies crude oil to southwestern China. Similarly, Gwadar—a Pakistani port city that the Chinese helped build—sits less than 250 miles away from the narrow Strait of Hormuz that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman. Gwadar also happens to be the starting terminal of another oil pipeline to China.
Djibouti has been an experiment. And now, the mixing of commercial and military interests that made Djibouti a possibility has become a model that China will replicate again, and soon. Rumor has it that the Chinese have already set their sights on the Jiwani peninsula near Gwadar as the location for their next military outpost. Given significant Chinese investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the possibility is high. And when it happens, China will once again demonstrate that it aspires to leverage its economic prowess to assume a larger security role on the global stage.