Why tiny Djibouti hosts both China and U.S. military bases – only a few kilometers apart

Abu Mubarik September 29, 2020
Why this tiny African country is hosting both Chinese and American military bases. Photo Credit--Photo via Belt and Road news

Djibouti, a tiny African country located in the Horn of Africa (East Africa), is known for its wildlife, scenic sightseeing spots, culture, and tradition. What is however unknown by many Africans is that Djibouti hosts the military bases of both China and the United States. It is the only place in the world where Beijing and Washington have military bases so close together.

The U.S. opened its military base, Camp Lemonnier, in the East African nation in 2003 and now the biggest base in Africa. It currently has about 4,500 troops stationed in it. Just 12km away from the U.S. base is China’s which was opened in 2017 with around 2,000 military personnel. The decision by China to set up military bases overseas is surprising as it has historically been opposed to the idea.

The presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a strategic concern for the U.S. military even though on the ground, both sides are engaged in peaceful diplomacy. For instance, when the U.S. military launched Cutlass Express, a military drill exercise, they invited their Chinese counterpart to participate.

Why did both countries establish a base in Djibouti?

Djibouti, a former French colony, controls the Bab el-Mandeb (“Gate of Tears” in Arabic) which is a crucial chokepoint at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from the Indian Ocean. The East African nation has also remained of high value for all maritime nations. The Bab el-Mandeb is the world’s fourth most frequented maritime route used by some 30,000 ships every year. Also, since the outbreak of the Ethiopia–Eritrea war in 1998, Djibouti has become a gateway for 90% of Ethiopia’s imports, a trading volume that accounts for 90% of Djibouti’s port traffic.

The U.S. established the Camp Lemonnier in 2003 after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It is home to some 4,500 personnel, some of whom are engaged in secretive missions and targeted drone killings in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, according to the New York Times.   

For the Chinese, the establishment of the base is about bringing peace and security to a region bedeviled with violence and terrorism. “The completion and operation of the base will help China better fulfill its international obligations in conducting escorting missions and humanitarian assistance … It will also help promote economic and social development in Djibouti,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in 2017.

Other analysts believe it has more to do with securing Chinese investment in a fragile region. “It’s naval power expansion for protecting commerce and China’s regional interests in the Horn of Africa,” Professor Petter Dutton said, according to the New York Times. “This is what expansionary powers do. China has learned lessons from Britain of 200 years ago.”

Is it a scramble for Africa?

Africa is emerging as an important region for China, America and Europe. However, in the last two decades, America’s investment in Africa has dwindled while that of China has gone up. China has been Africa’s biggest trading partner in the last decade, with trade volumes reaching $208 billion in 2019, figures from China’s Ministry of Commerce show.

On the other hand, U.S. trade with Africa was around $41 billion in 2018. A $1 billion Belt and Road infrastructure fund for Africa has been launched by China, and last year, President Xi Jinping pledged a $60 billion African aid package, further strengthening his country’s economic influence on the continent.

The country also continues to be Africa’s largest lender, hitting US$143 billion between 2000 and 2017, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. These monies fund projects such as roads, railway, ports, dams and so on. The U.S., however, remains the continent’s biggest aid provider. According to the USAID, the U.S. donated US$8.5 billion to sub-Saharan Africa in 2018.

What is in it for Djibouti?

The lease of land for military bases has become one of the important sources of revenue for the government. In other words, it is the biggest foreign exchange earner for the country. Washington pays $63 million annually for a 10-year lease of the area while China pays $20 million a year, in addition to other investments. It is therefore not difficult to see why the former French colony will look pass the rivalry that exists between the two superpowers.

The Horn of Africa is one of the volatile regions in the world. Besides located in Africa, it is also close to the Middle East. It is less than 20 miles away from Yemen. Somalia, located in East Djibouti, has been the hotbed of conflict with pirates and al-Shabab militants posing a severe threat to international shipping and the region. Therefore, the presence of Chinese and American troops guarantees the country’s security.

Are other superpowers welcomed?

Russia has been lobbying the Djiboutian government to also establish a military-based but has been denied. Djibouti says it doesn’t want to become a battleground for the competing interests of superpowers. Russia currently has a military footprint in Eritrea and Sudan.

Saudi Arabia is also seeking to establish a military base in Djibouti but is facing challenges due to tensions between Djibouti and the U.A.E, Saudi ally.
Under the cover of NATO, Italy and France equally have a military footprint in Djibouti, providing regional support for AFRICOM. The partnership also boosts intelligence collection and sharing which benefits U.S. interests in the region. German and UK forces are also present.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 29, 2020


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