China is negotiating a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti, the president said, raising the prospect of US and Chinese bases side-by-side in the tiny Horn of Africa nation Midnimo.com reported.
“Discussions are ongoing,” President Ismail Omar Guelleh told AFP in an interview in Djibouti, saying Beijing’s presence would be “welcome”.
Djibouti is already home to Camp Lemonnier, the US military headquarters on the continent, used for covert, anti-terror and other operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa.
France and Japan also have bases in the port, a former French colony that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and which has been used by European and other international navies as a base in the fight against piracy from neighbouring Somalia.
China is already financing several major infrastructure projects estimated to total more than USD 9 billion, including improved ports, airports and railway lines to landlocked Ethiopia, for whom Djibouti is a lifeline port.
“France’s presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region,” Guelleh said.
“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy – and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome,” he said.
Djibouti overseas the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits, the channel separating Africa from Arabia and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, leading into the Red Sea and northwards to the Mediterranean.
Djibouti and Beijing signed a military agreement allowing the Chinese navy to use Djibouti port in February 2014, a move that angered Washington.
China aims to install a permanent military base in Obock, Djibouti’s northern port city.
In recent years, Guelleh has increasingly turned to China as a key economic partner. Last year he switched the port operating contract to a Chinese company, after the previous Dubai-based operator was accused of corruption.
What is Djibouti country
Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa, and is a country with an area of only 23,000 square kilometers and a population of about 820,000 — about the same as the average Chinese county. Besides being small, Djibouti is also poor and is one of the least developed countries in the world. It is lacking in natural resources and its agricultural industries are backward. Deserts and volcanoes take up 90 percent of Djibouti’s total surface area. In addition, there are less than 4000 farmers in the country and it is not self-sufficient in grain production.
As soon as you travel a short distance away from Djibouti’s capital city, all you see is a vast gravel desert with volcanic rocks scattered across it. No noticeable plants are visible besides thorn-filled acacia trees. Therefore, even the small number of Djiboutians who want to chew khat (a plant similar to marijuana that has a stimulant effect) have to import it from Ethiopia.
Fortunately for Djibouti, even though it is small and poor, it occupies a strategically important position. Djibouti is located in a key area on the west coast of the Gulf of Aden, with its northern part facing the Mandab Strait where the Red Sea enters the Indian Ocean. Djibouti is also a good natural harbor with calm and deep water. Most importantly, unlike Somali, Djibouti has a secure and stable government that has had only two presidents since it gained independence from France in 1977. The Somali and the Afar, the two largest ethnic groups in Djibouti, together make up almost 90 percent of the country’s population, and they get along in harmony.
Many countries have been attracted to build military bases in Djibouti because of its strategically important position and its stable and secure government. First was France, its former colonizer. France and Djibouti have signed a defense agreement and France continues to operate several military bases in the country. A Djiboutian scholar told us that France recognizes the importance of its bases in Djibouti now more than ever following its deployment of troops to Mali, and is now preparing to increase its troops and investment in Djibouti.
Second was America. The US set its eyes on Djibouti as part of its War on Terror following the events of 9-11, and established the only US military base in Africa there. When the US was in the process of setting up its Africa Command [which is now in Germany], Djibouti actively invited the US to consider setting up the headquarters of its Command in Djibouti. The military base in Djibouti not only allowed the US to have a foothold in East Africa and the hinterlands of Africa, but also played an important role in the US attack on Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants and the US’ toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. Several years ago, Japan also established its first overseas naval military base in Djibouti using the pretext of trying to curb the increasingly rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Besides hosting the military bases of these countries, Djibouti is also important as a maintenance and resupply base for many countries’ escort ships. The berths in the country’s harbor are full of ships,and arrangements for ships that want to dock in them must be made well in advance. In the past four years, the ships in China’s escort fleet have docked in Djibouti more than 50 times.
The port of Djibouti is the country’s economic lifeline, and the fees that it collects from military bases are another important source of income. Djiboutian scholars revealed to the Global Times that France pays about 30 million euros (~$39.06 million) per year in fees for the right to maintain military bases in the country, while the US pays $30 million and Japan pays a sum that is no less than what is paid by France and the US. These funds can accomplish a lot in a country that only has a population of 820,000. As a result, Djibouti pursues a policy of balanced diplomacy in which “everyone who visits is treated as a guest and care is taken not to offend anyone.”
While interviewing the commander of the Djibouti navy Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher, we mentioned that in the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He had sailed to the West [of China] and came to Africa and to Djibouti with friendly intentions and no intentions of invading it. When he heard this, Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher first seemed deep in thought, perhaps thinking that we were casting aspersions on Western countries because of their historical invasion of Djibouti. He then suddenly said, “The US and France are also guests of Djibouti. They have their own role to play and we cooperate well.”
On the day before we visited the Colonel, Japan and Djibouti signed an agreement in which Japan donated two patrol boats to Djibouti. However, when we asked the Colonel about the collaboration between the Djiboutian navy and foreign navies, he did not mention this.
Djibouti also has close relations with China. In our interviews with Djiboutians, many of them mentioned that the former president of Djibouti Hassan Gouled Aptidon gave property in the country to China before he retired. Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher told us that he knew that the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress Work Report mentioned China’s goal to become a maritime power and said that he welcomes China to build its own base in Djibouti.
A Chinese person in Djibouti sighed and said to us: “The ability of a small country like Djibouti to walk the tightrope of balancing the interests of the world’s major powers while achieving its own interests and developing deserves recognition.”