Historically, transportation of most exports and imports from Europe to the East and vice versa had to go through a long and expensive route pass the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The establishment of the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869 cut the distance and time of transportation of exports and imports tremendously. The Suez Canal also increased the utilization of the Red Sea making it one of the most competed waters in the world. There are six countries bordering the Red Sea namely; Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti. The increased business along the Red Sea also drew attention to countries bordering the Red Sea. Whilst Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance brought economic bounties to these countries, the majority of the countries along the Red Sea have not necessarily benefited instead most have been engulfed by socio-political and economic instability.
This paper will look at the militarization of the Horn of Africa in general. It will premise that by arguing that the trade from Europe passing through the Red Sea from the Mediterranean, amongst other things, has made the coastline along the Horn of Africa significant in global business and politics. It will specifically interrogate the establishment of the Chinese base in Djibouti, the first of its kind by China outside its borders. China has argued that the main reason for her new military base in Djibouti is to assist in peace keeping which could add into political stability in Africa and to Djibouti’s socio-economic development. In a statement the Chinese government said, “China wishes to contribute to humanitarian relief, peace and stability in Africa, and to Djibouti’s socio-economic development” (1). Furthermore, this paper will argue that although China’s stated intentions and objectives in Djibouti might be noble, there are other more pressing reasons why China has become the latest superpower to establish a military base in Djibouti. First, China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI), the nation’s global investment initiative, has made large investments in Africa and beyond. Therefore, China is preparing itself to protect its investments and interests. Second, China is part of world’s powerful nations, it has therefore by default to join the frail in order to emphasise its importance and global leadership. Third, imports and exports from China to the West utilise the Suez Canal, other nations have formed alliances to protect their vessels passing the canal. China seeks to add to those security arrangements in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, albeit specifically for its own cargo.
Background to the growing importance of the Horn of Africa
The creation of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869 was the beginning of the rise in geopolitical importance of the Horn of Africa in contemporary history. It also led to the diversion of majority of world trade from travelling around the continent of Africa. The canal enabled a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, effectively allowing for passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean without having circumnavigating the African continent. Today, an average of 50 ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods per year (2). The Suez Canal presented opportunities and economic and political misfortunes to the countries along the Red Sea particularly those on the Horn of Africa, as this paper will later explain. The Horn of Africa consists of 4 countries namely; Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia. Ethiopia has been strategic to business and politics from time in antiquity. It’s strategic location, which links the Arab World and Africa has made it a priority for those who were fleeing persecution from medieval Arabia. The Arab migration to Abyssinia, also known as the Hijra in Islamic history, occurred in the early days of Islam in which the followers of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam followers fled persecution in Arabia. They first arrived in the Aksumite Empire (todays Ethiopia), where Ashama ibn Abjar (also known as Al-Nejashi), a Christian ruler, received and allowed them to settle in Negash, a village in the region’s Tigray Region (3).
Somalia has the longest coastline in the region. The ongoing war in that country has led to the coast of Somalia to be regarded as one of the most dangerous coastlines for maritime business in the world. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) considers the Somali coast to be the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. At any given time pirates are holding at least a dozen ships hostage including the occasional oil supertanker for which they can demand up to $25 million in ransom (4). The instability in Somalia has created an unsafe environment for business throughout the Horn of Africa especially in the Bab el Mandeb. According to the annual State of Piracy report released by One Earth Future’s Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), the incidences of piracy took a dramatic increase in 2007 (5). This has led to the escalation of militarization of the Indian Ocean along the Horn of Africa, particularly along the Gulf of Aden, Bab el Mandeb and the coast of Somalia. Furthermore continuing war in Yemen has been another main contributor to the militarization of the Horn of Africa. Dozens of cargo ships were hijacked in these waters; this led to great disturbance of the trade. BBC reports, Somali pirates seized a record 1,181 hostages in 2010 and were paid many millions of dollars in ransom. In the fall of 2011, more than 300 hundred people were being held hostage by various pirate groups based in Somalia (6). The hijackings are commonplace to an extent that they prompted a production of a Hollywood movie called Captain Philips starring famous actor Tom Hanks. The movie depicted the dangers posed by piracy in the Horn. The impact on business along the coast of the Horn in particular, prompted countries like Ethiopia to get involved in the creation of the stabilizing force in the region. Ethiopia and Kenya sent troops to Somalia the first time in 2006. The Ethiopian troops were initially part of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Eritrea has also seen an increase military bases investments. The Saudi led coalition, which is battling the Houthi rebels in Yemen, has made substantial investments in that country in military bases. According to the United Nations monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia, the UAE has used its Eritrean base to train and equip 4000 Yemeni fighters-specifically Hadrami Elite Forces and Security Belt, who have been implicated in enforced disappearances and detainee abuse. Djibouti on the hand has been relatively peaceful comparatively in the Horn of Africa. Its geographical positioning and relative political stability has enabled the country to attract large investments, as this paper will later discuss. Moreover, Djibouti has been key in Ethiopia’s economy. Although Ethiopia possesses great political power in the region, Ethiopia is landlocked and depends on Djibouti for most of its imports and exports.
China enters an already crowded space in the Horn of Africa
China’s military base enters an already crowded space; United States (US), Japan, Italy, France and Spain have military bases in Djibouti. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti. It has cost around US$590 million to construct the base. The facility is expected to significantly increase China’s power capabilities in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The base is 0.5 square kilometres in size and staffed by approximately 400 personnel.
China join the US Camp Lemonnier, a Naval Expeditionary Base in Djibouti. Lamonnier is situated next to Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti City. It is also home to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) of the US-Africa Command (USAFRICOM). It is the only permanent US Military Base in Africa. In 2013, the US presented plans to expand the base and its special forces to more than 1,000. The project is estimated to cost US$ 1.4 billion. In May 2014, the US and Djibouti agreed to extent the American lease for additional 20 years at a price of US$63 million a year in rent, it is double what the US was paying before.
Japan also has a base in Djibouti, it was established in 2009 when the country joined members of the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in response to piracy off the coast of Somalia. Japan’s base in Djibouti has 180 troops deployed in that country with a four months rotational basis. Japan spends around US$ 4.7 million on a command headquarters, boarding facilities and parking apron in Djibouti.
France and Djibouti concluded a defense cooperation treaty in December 2011 and it entered into force on 1 May 2014. The treaty sets out the operational facilities granted to French forces stationed in the country. Since independence the number of French Forces in Djibouti (FFDJ) has declined from 4300 in 1978, to 2400 in the 2000s, to the current level of 1450 — the minimum stipulated in the 2011 treaty. The FFDJ is tasked with the defence of Djibouti territory and airspace in accordance with the defence cooperation treaty, supporting the work of European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states in the Horn of Africa region, and the protection of maritime vessels. The French base hosts Spanish and German detachments and the logistical support staff involved in the EU’s anti-piracy mission, EU Naval Force Atlanta (EUNAVFOR, Operation Atalanta) (7).
Italy’s National Support Military Base (Base Militare Nazionale di Supporto), located next to Djibouti — Ambouli International Airport, opened in 2013. The base is intended primarily to support Italian naval activity in the region, most notably Operation Atalanta, and the operation of UAVs. The base is reportedly capable of hosting up to 300 troops but operates with on average 80 personnel. The annual cost of the lease on the base is reported to be $2.6 million (8). Spain is involved in the EU’s Operation Atalanta and maintains around 50 personnel to support the mission, based at the French facilities in Djibouti.101 Since 2008, Spain has also continuously deployed maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (P-3C) to support Operation Atalanta. (9)
Towards understanding the reasons for China military base in Djibouti
Indeed the region has been militarizing long before the advent of Saudi led Coalition in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthis in yemen since 2015 as already stated. Analysts say Djibouti’s geostrategic location and its stability in a volatile region have made it an important playground for world powers (10). According to the TRT World analysis, “Djibouti has become an important parking space” for these countries. The geostrategic positioning of Djibouti has made it the most sorted space after Bab el-Mandeb strait on the Red Sea. Bab el Mandeb is only about 32 kilometers (20 miles) wide between Djibouti and Yemen, it also boarders the Gulf of Eden. Gulf of Eden sits amidst Yemen to the North, the Arabian Sea to the East, Somalia to the South and Djibouti to the West. The Gulf of Aden overlook one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world, 12.5 to 20 percent of global trade passes every year. Djibouti serves as a key refueling and transshipment centre for most world business. It also serves as a key port for the imports into Ethiopia and exports to the rest of the world form that country as earlier stated. It has become a burgeoning commercial hub and a site for various military bases including the US won Camp Lemonnier and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IDAD) which has its headquarters in the country.
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. 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 (11). Moreover, there are speculations that China decided on the military base in Djibouti to join the “big club”, after all most world superpowers have military basis in Djibouti. Moreover, China needs a half way destination from where it could replenish reserves as it continues to increase its export business along the Red Sea and as it embarks on an ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Second and importantly China needs the base in order to establish security for its investments and business interests, Djibouti is well located.
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
The BRI is a global development strategy adopted by China aimed at infrastructural development and investments in 152 countries and in international organizations in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. One Belt One Road (OBOR) became BRI after Chinese government changed the name in 2016. The reason according to the Chinese the word “One” could have been misconstrued by it partners as aiming at dominating the world. China has made one of its biggest investments in Djibouti. The Doraleh Multi Purpose Port is an extension of the port of Djibouti located 5 km west of Djibouti City. The multipurpose port has terminals for handling oil, bulk cargo, and containers. It was partially owned and operated by Dubai Ports World and China Merchant Holdings until February 2018. The military base and its proximity to this investment will help protect the investment. There are a number of possible hiccups that can occur as China engage on BRI. How will China react in cases of default by countries where it has made substantial investments particularly in Africa? Furthermore how will China react in terms of security threat directed at its business? Naturally in all those instances, China will have to react; it is likely that reaction could necessitate use of force. Geostrategic location of Djibouti is key to future control of global business of China as it embarks on BRI.
Second, China has embraced a relatively non-confrontational foreign policy for most of the 21st century. At the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) where it occupies a permanent seat, it has mostly abstained and/or vetoed some decisions when it comes to sensitive global political decisions. China has only employed its veto privileges 12 times the lowest number of any P5 member. As a point of comparison, the US has vetoed 80 resolutions since November 1971 — when China joined the UN — accounting for nearly two-thirds of all UNSC vetoes during this period. China has casted 11 of its 12 vetoes since 1997, demonstrating its growing activity within the UNSC (12). Many have criticized China’s position when it comes to its global responsibilities; they have accused China of renegation from its global responsibilities in order to discourage scrutiny from human rights violations. Moreover, after decades of opposition to UN peacekeeping operations, China is now a world leader in peacekeeping operations. The behavior corresponds with Beijing’s efforts to enhance China’s international image through increased participation in global governance. In 1990, China had only five soldiers deployed in peacekeeping operations. This number surged to a high of 3,084 personnel by mid-2015 and remains at over 2,500 personnel today — the most of any P5 member (13). Third, China is Africa’s biggest trade partner and is helping to develop the continent’s infrastructure (14). Although China has emphasised that its presence in Djibouti is mainly to fulfill its global responsibility, provide peace force and assist the continent in its relief efforts. There are many in Africa who view the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti differently. They argue that China is readying itself to intervene in case its interests get threatened in the continent and beyond.
Djibouti’s strategic geopolitical positioning has helped the country to generate much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), at least for now. There are many opportunities that investments have brought to the economy of Djibouti. However there has been increased political impunity, proliferation of human rights abuses and undemocratic practices in Djibouti. Violations of human rights in Djibouti are an alarming concern within its borders and abroad. They have escalated to the point of surrounding nations determining whether or not Djibouti’s government has committed crimes against humanity (17). Moreover Djibouti could find itself in a coalition course with many countries in Africa. If China decides to launch attacks or use force from its base in Djibouti against any African country, it could raise tensions between the African countries and AU on one side and Djibouti. Understandably, China is not expected to invest large sums of money in Africa without putting in place certain safety nets and precautions to protects its investments. The question is how will China’s actions impact on Djibouti’s relations with its neighbours and the AU?
Finally, Djibouti has found a creative way of monetizing its strategic geographical positioning; it has allowed large parts of its coastline to become a “parking space” for global powers and their military hardware. The multinational presence of military bases in Djibouti has made the country one of the most secured country in Africa. However the manner in which Africa deals with Djibouti henceforth will largely depend on how China utilizes its bases in Djibouti. The militarization of Djibouti will certainly change the balance of power in the Horn of Africa and Africa. Ethiopia has been for longest of time been the regional powerhouse, the situation rapidly changing. Finally, China’s vast investments overseas have necessitated review of its security arrangement. The choice of Djibouti as the first country to host its military base overseas has to do with Djibouti’s strategic location.
- Elizabeth C. Economy, Council on Foreign Relatios, China’s Strategy in Djibouti: Mixing commercial and military interest, https://www.cfr.org/blog/chinas-strategy-djibouti-mixing-commercial-and-military-interests, 30 October 2019
- History, Suez Canal, https://www.history.com/topics/africa/suez-canal , 30 October 2019
- Thembisa Fakude, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Understanding the foreign policy of Ethiopia towards the Gulf, http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2017/12/understanding-foreign-policy-ethiopia-gulf-countries-171231100904587.html , 30 October 2019
- Anouk Ziljma, Tripsavvy, A guide to Somalia’s modern day pirates, https://www.tripsavvy.com/guide-to-somali-pirates-1454065 , 30 October 2019
- Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa, Piracy made a story comeback in Somalia, https://qz.com/africa/1287522/somali-piracy-and-armed-robbery-off-the-indian-ocean-doubled-in-2017/ 30 October 2019
- Ibid, https://www.tripsavvy.com/guide-to-somali-pirates-1454065, 30 October 2019
- Neil Melvin, The foreign military presence in the Horn of Africa region, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/sipribp1904.pdf , 05 November 2019
- Ibid, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/sipribp1904.pdf
- Ibid, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/sipribp1904.pdf
- Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa, How a tiny African country became the world’s key military base, https://qz.com/africa/1056257/how-a-tiny-african-country-became-the-worlds-key-military-base/ , 30 0ctober 2019
- Elizabeth C. Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, China’s Strategy in Djibouti: Mixing commercial and Military interest, https://www.cfr.org/blog/chinas-strategy-djibouti-mixing-commercial-and-military-interests, 30 October 2019
- China Power, CSIS, Is China contributing to the United Nations’ mission?, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-un-mission/, 05 November 2019
- Ibid, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-un-mission/,
- Steve Kuo, Business Day China is investing in Africa and that’s a good thing, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2018-12-19-china-is-investing-in-africa-and-thats-a-good-thing/ , 30 October 2019
- Borgen Magazine, Government Corruption violates Human Rights in Djibouti, https://www.borgenmagazine.com/corruption-violates-human-rights-in-djibouti/ 30 October 2019.
Thembisa Fakude | Senior Researcher and Director Afrasid
Thembisa holds Masters degree in Politics. He is a columnist with the Middle East Monitor in London. He is a research fellow at Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. He serves on the board of Common Action Forum in Madrid, Spain and on the board of Mail and Guardian publication in South Africa. He is the former Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera Media Network for Arabic and English Channels in Southern Africa