Djibouti, a resource-poor nation of 14,300 square miles and 875,000 people in the Horn of Africa, rarely makes international headlines. But between its relative stability and strategic location—20 miles across from war-consumed Yemen and in destroyer range of the pirate-infested western edge of the Indian Ocean—it is now one of the India security beachheads in the developing world. Its location also matters greatly to global commerce and energy, due to its vicinity to the Mandeb Strait and the Suez-Aden canal, which sees ten percent of the world’s oil exports and 20 percent of its commercial exports annually. Since November 2002, the country has been home to Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. Expeditionary base—the only American base on the African continent—along with other bases belonging to its French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese allies. The United States maintains numerous small outposts and airfields in Africa but officially regards Lemonnier as its only full-scale military base on the continent.
THE US SETS AN EYE IN VIGIL ON CHINA
The US’s Camp Lemonnier, a special-operations outpost in the sweltering East African country of Djibouti, will soon have a new neighbour. China will open a new naval base – what it has called ” logistical support ” facilities – nearby, bringing the US into closer proximity with a rival power than some officers have ever experienced.Lemonnier and Djibouti are strategically located in the Horn of Africa. They sit on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to Egypt’s Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.They’re also close to the restive country of Somalia and a short distance from the Arabian Peninsula – India Yemen, where the US has for some time been supporting a Saudi Arabian military campaign and before that was carrying out operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.More than 4,000 US personnel are at Lemonnier, the US’s largest permanent base on the continent, and it has long hosted sensitive US drone and air operations. The US also has run drone operations out of East Africa, and China has 2,400 peacekeepers on the continent.
The Two New Children In The Block: China & Saudi Arabia
On January 21st, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry announced an agreement with Djibouti to host its first-ever base beyond the South China Sea, and construction commenced days later. Though Beijing called the installation a “logistics and fast evacuation base,” the Asian power’s “near-abroad” rivals, such as Taiwan, opined that it is more likely the beginning of a new, aggressive military buildup to rival the United States. Six weeks later, Saudi Arabia declared that it too would construct a base in Djibouti, apparently as part of its newly assertive policy of countering Iranian proxies politically and militarily throughout the region.
Both new players have made substantial economic and soft power investments in the country to boot. Since 2015, Beijing has poured over $14 billion into infrastructure development. Saudi Arabia, itself a prominent donor to Djibouti’s public works, has spent generously on social welfare projects for the country’s poor; built housing, schools and mosques for its swelling Yemeni refugee population; and dispatched teachers and preachers from the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, long a pillar for the promulgation of Saudi-backed interpretations of Islam. Augmenting Saudi aid, moreover, has been further spending by some of its Arab military allies. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have poured millions into charitable work over the past few months—and the UAE, in particular, is working to spur economic development along the lines of the “Dubai model.” Even cash-poor North Sudan, newly returned to the Saudi orbit after a years-long alliance with Iran, began construction of a hospital in Djibouti in early February.
THE INDIAN CONCERN
India India recently has been tracking a lot of Chinese navy traffic in the IOR region raising security concerns and also believes that China wants to ensure its dominance in the IOR region. A Chinese base in Djibouti can possibly trigger more Chinese vessels into the Indian ocean also less time for the Chinese naval ships for refueling. All these factors combined the new Chinese base in Djibouti is going to be a headache to India. The Chinese base in Djibouti raisins concerns for India as it raises chances for a possible threat on the southern side of India possibly a naval invasion.
In March this year, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post had reported that China plans to increase the size of its marine corps from 20,000 to one lakh personnel for overseas deployment, including at Gwadar and Djibouti.The expansion is planned to protect China’s maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas.Some members would be stationed at ports China operates in Djibouti and Gwadar in south-west Pakistan, the report said.In addition, China also plans to take over the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as part of a debt swap to firm up its naval operations in the Indian Ocean, much to the disquiet of India.
China has stepped up activity in the Indian Ocean, which New Delhi considers within its sphere of influence, in recent days, citing anti-piracy patrols and freedom of navigation. The Indian Navy has sighted more than a dozen Chinese warships, including submarines and intelligence-gathering vessels, during the last two months, forcing it to tighten surveillance of the strategic waters. The Indian Ocean shipping lanes carry 80% of the world’s oil and a third of the global bulk cargo. China is looking to secure its energy and trade transportation links along the vital shipping route. The Indian Ocean is also emerging as the playground for countries eyeing a bigger role in world affairs. China is looking to generate goodwill and influence in the Indian Ocean countries by investing in projects such ports, roads and railways.
THE AFRICAN ROULETTE
In terms of trade, China, at a major summit with African nations in 2015, pledged to invest $60bn in Africa’s development. It has started to invest heavily in Africa, especially in infrastructure projects like railways and improving connectivity. China’s keen interest in Africa is due to the fact that it has an abundance of natural resources. China is not only lying to tap African market but also looking at it as a supplier of minerals and energy. India, on the other hand, has been a little late in approaching Africa for trade. Although Indian companies have a presence in Africa, New Delhi’s push for furthering relations has been somewhat delayed. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya with a focus on deepening cooperation in hydrocarbons, maritime security, trade and investment, agriculture and food. In May this year, Modi pitched for an “Asia-Africa growth corridor” supported by Japan and India which was seen as a move to counter China’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) initiative.
—– Thejus Gireesh