The East African 8 August 2015
Some members of the US Congress have urged the Obama administration to dissuade the government of Djibouti from allowing China to establish a military presence in the Horn of Africa.
The concerns centre around the small, strategically situated country, which hosts a large US base used to carry out air and sea patrols and to conduct drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen.
Worries about China’s intentions in Djibouti also reflect Washington’s overall wariness of Beijing’s economic role throughout sub-Saharan Africa, which has surpassed that of the US.
China and Djibouti signed a security and defence agreement last year, which analysts suggest may be a prelude to the establishment of a Chinese military installation.
Djibouti President Omar Guelleh heightened US qualms when he told the AFP news agency in May that a Chinese deployment in his country would be “welcome.” The president added that discussions with China about such an arrangement are “ongoing.”
Beijing has made enormous investments in infrastructure, including an airport, a rail link to Ethiopia and port facilities. But an Africa specialist at a Washington think tank said, “It would make a great deal of sense for China to have a base there.”
Chinese military aircraft with a range of 4,000km would be able to operate over large swathes of Africa and the Arabian peninsula from a base in Djibouti, observed J Peter Pham, director of the African programme at the Atlantic Council.
A Djibouti facility would be a logical link in the “string of pearls” Beijing is threading around the Indian Ocean, Mr Pham said. Beijing says its interests in gaining access to ports in the region are of a purely commercial nature.
However, rumours are circulating that the emerging superpower wants to construct a military facility in Obock, a seaside town with an airport north of Djibouti’s capital city.
A Chinese base anywhere in Djibouti “would not be in the US’s strategic interest,” Mr Pham said. But, he added, it is not clear that Washington would expend “the diplomatic capital” needed to dissuade President Guelleh — or China — from establishing such a presence.
The US has made considerable investments in Djibouti, but these are heavily military in nature.
President Obama and President Guelleh announced, following a White House meeting two years ago, that a deal had been struck allowing the US to maintain its surveillance and strike capability at Camp Lemonnier, a former French facility that now houses about 4,000 US troops.
It was subsequently revealed that the US will pay Djibouti about $70 million a year for the next 20 years in lease fees for that base, where the US has been making some $500 million’s worth in infrastructure improvements.
The Pentagon’s Combined Joint Task Force/Horn of Africa has used Camp Lemonnier since 2002.
Base of operations
Japan and France also have a military presence in Djibouti. The country has been used as a base of operations for forces fighting Somali piracy.
Djibouti’s location astride the shipping lanes of the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the channel separating Africa from Arabia, further contributes to its strategic value.
Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives Africa subcommittee, recently wrote to US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter regarding “China’s unprecedented investment in Djibouti and the worrisome behaviour by the country’s longtime leader.”
At least two other members of Congress’ Republican majority are reported to have privately expressed similar concerns in communications with top Obama administration officials.
Repressive rule can trigger unanticipated rebellions, notes Joshua Meservey, an Africa analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. Mr Meservey recalls that few outsiders foresaw the explosion of protests known as the Arab Spring. He adds, however, that there are no signs of such an uprising brewing in Djibouti.
A leading US expert on China-Africa relations downplayed the likelihood of China establishing a full-fledged military base in Djibouti.
Deborah Brautigam, an analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, suggested that Beijing is probably interested only in having a refuelling facility. “I don’t see them getting involved with drones,” she said.
In regard to a Chinese military role in Africa, Ms Brautigam said Beijing is “far more likely” to facilitate and possibly augment UN peacekeeping missions. She cited the example of South Sudan, where China has contributed 800 troops to the UN mission.