Small countries with limited resources have been known to turn themselves into financial centers where dodgy banks and companies find a haven from international regulators as a means to reverse their national fortunes.
Djibouti, the third smallest country on the African mainland, has found another way to thrive: hosting military bases.
The tiny nation formerly known as French Somaliland has leveraged its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea and some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes running through the Suez Canal to lease its otherwise barren, rocky land to foreign powers.
Djibouti also has the seaside advantage of being comparatively serene in a region plagued by instability. Djibouti’s old colonial power France maintains a base here, as do the Americans, Italians and Japanese. Germany and Spain maintain troops at the base hosted by the French.
Then came the Chinese.
When Beijing inaugurated its first overseas military base here on August 1, 2017, Djibouti was turned fully into a modern day Casablanca, where everyone seems to be spying on one another. It may be a Francophone port city with an interior as rugged as Morocco’s, but there is no Rick’s Café here, as famously portrayed in the 1942 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
But, at a more modern luxury hotel overlooking the beach in the north of Djibouti City, Western military officers and soldiers in uniform can be seen alongside Chinese businessmen and technicians as well as assorted dignitaries from Africa and Arab countries.
The Chinese base, maintained by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, is located at Doraleh west of the capital while all the other nations’ bases are situated near the international airport to the south less than ten kilometers away.
Geopolitics is a lucrative business for Djibouti. The US pays US$63 million annually in rent for its base, the French US$36 million, China US$20 million and Italy US$2.6 million. The amount Japan pays is not publicly disclosed.
There are an estimated 4,000 soldiers and Filipino workers at the American base, 180 troops at the Japanese camp and 1,450 at France’s two bases — one near the airport and a naval facility on the coast where the Germans and Spaniards are also stationed. Around 80 Italians are situated in a base near the US camp.
China’s Doraleh base is close to a new seaport and the end station of a new Chinese-built 759-kilometer railroad extending from Djibouti’s coast to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The standard gauge railroad was opened for commercial traffic on January 1 this year, replacing a a meter-gauge railway built during the French colonial era that is no longer used.
Passengers can use a station close to the airport while freight trains carrying containers go all the way to and from Doraleh. Nearby is the largest free trade zone in Africa, known as the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ), where hundreds of trucks can be seen waiting to pick up goods destined for Ethiopia and other countries beyond Djibouti.
The Chinese-financed, UD$3.5 billion DIFTZ opened earlier this year, covering an area of 4,800 hectares. According to an official announcement, it will focus on logistics, export processing, financial support services, manufacturing and duty-free merchandise trade.
This small and largely peaceful republic on the Horn of Africa is fast becoming China’s economic gateway to Africa. But it is the naval base that has sent jitters through the Western military community in Djibouti.
The official China Daily, which covered the opening of the base in August last year, stated at the time it could “support some 10,000 people” with the caveat that “official figures for the number of personnel to be stationed there have not been released.” The paper said the official reason for the establishment of the base was “to support the Chinese military’s escort and peacekeeping missions in Africa and West Asia.”
The Western powers that have bases there usually refer to the same reason for their presence in Djibouti, as well as to fight pirates famously active off the coast of Somalia.
But The China Daily was probably more frank than Western spokespersons as it also quoted Liu Hongwu, a professor at Zhejiang University, as saying that Djibouti “is situated at the juncture of Europe, Asia and Africa; in a sense, it is at the crossroads of the world.”
That’s more likely why China is there, to protect its economic and strategic interests in the region — and hence also better position itself for any potential conflicts between China and the West, primarily the US.
Djibouti is not America’s only base in the region. It also has an important facility in Qatar, as well as the highly secretive, multi-purpose base at Diego Garcia, a leased atoll in the British Indian Ocean Territory that is the only possession the United Kingdom keeps in the region after it withdraw from east of Suez in the 1960s.
In that sense, China’s new base in Djibouti is the first serious challenge to US military supremacy in the Indian Ocean region. And China is making incipient moves in that direction.
In July 2017, just before the official opening of the base, the Chinese warships CNS Jinggangshan and CNS Donghaidao brought in personnel and materiel to the base. The CNS Jinggangshan carried marines, engineers and military vehicles to the base while the CNS Donghaidao transported some unspecified heavy equipment.
Then, in September last year, troops stationed at the base carried out their first live-fire drills. The exercise, which involved dozens of soldiers, took place at Djibouti’s national gendarmerie training range and was meant to test their combat readiness when faced with extreme heat, humidity and salinity — all omnipresent in Djibouti as well as other parts of Africa.
To keep up the pretense that nothing untoward is underway, the combined European Union counter-piracy task force in Djibouti and China’s PLA Navy carried out a joint exercise in October.
But there is no hiding the fact that Western powers are peeved by China’s newly established presence. In March this year, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US general for Africa, told a US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing that “the consequences would be significant” if China took over the port at Doraleh.
That is now happening as the Djibouti government took over the port from Dubai’s DP World in February without any official explanation and appears now to be negotiating an agreement with the state-run China Merchants Group to take its place.
DP World appealed against the decision and in August won a legal battle against Djibouti at the London Court of International Arbitration. But that is no guarantee that Chinese interests will not soon win control of the port.
CMPort, a subsidiary of the China Merchants Group which runs Djibouti’s free trade zone, said in a statement in July that “Djibouti, one of the developing countries along the Belt and Road, has similar infrastructure with Shenzhen (opposite Hong Kong) and Shekou (on the northern tip of Shenzhen), when it became the pioneer of China’s historic journey of reform and opening up.”
That effusive language shows Djibouti is a vital part of China’s desire to fortify its role as a rising world power — and Djibouti is so far serving as a willing and open client. There is even a new Confucious Center in Djibouti City which China leverages to cultivate ”people-to-people” ties.
US Waldhauser also said during the hearing in Washington that “there are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast (of Africa)…so Djibouti happens to be the first — there will be more.”
The strategically situated Horn of Africa and the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula on the other side of the Red Sea have long been coveted by competing great powers.
The French seized Djibouti in stages after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, partly to counter Britain’s presence at Aden, now in Yemen, across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the entrance to the Red Sea.
The colony became French Somaliland and, in 1967, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas, before finally achieving independence in 1977 — the last of the directly ruled European colonies in Africa to do so.
For decades, the French Foreign Legion had a base in Djibouti known as Camp Lemonnier, which was taken over by the Americans following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington and became the only permanent US base in Africa.
It was initially meant to combat terrorist activities in the region and US drone-operations in the Middle East are known to be carried out from the base.
But Camp Lemonnier, particularly after the arrival of the Chinese at Doraleh, now has other duties to watch the Chinese. Alarm bells jangled when, in May this year, two pilots on a US cargo plane experienced eye injuries after being exposed to a laser beam.
At the time, US military officials officially accused China of using military grade lasers to distract their pilots. Although ten kilometers separate their two bases, they are watching each other closely — and suspiciously.
The laser beam incident has not been the only friction point between the various base operators. The Italians established their base here in 2009 ostensibly to fight piracy, as did the Japanese.
But when a Chinese warship docked at Djibouti last year, the website of China’s Procuatorial Daily, the official organ of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s highest agency for prosecution and investigation, reported that a Japanese naval ship sent scuba gear-equipped frogmen to investigate. The Japanese did not comment on the accusation.
The nations maintaining bases in Djibouti are also widely believed to be engaged in electronic eavesdropping on one another, including surveillance of the activities of persons of interest in the country and capital city.
Indeed, the intrigues at Casablanca in the 1940s likely pale in insignificance when compared to what is happening now on this tiny speck of land on the Horn of Africa, an increasingly perilous pinnacle where spy versus spy intrigue often leaks into the public domain.
Nowhere on the planet are there so many military bases run by rival nations in such close proximity to each other. That proximity means anything can and likely will happen as the US and its allies confront a rising China in what some see as the early phases of a new Cold War.