Assessment of the Military Implication of Chinese Investment in the Port of Djibouti

Assessment of the Military Implication of Chinese Investment in the Port of Djibouti
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David Mattingly serves on the board of directors for the Naval Intelligence Professionals and is also a member of the Military Writers Guild.  The views reflected are his own and do not represents the United States Government of any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of the Military Implication of Chinese Investment in the Port of Djibouti

Date Originally Written:  March 11, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  June 11, 2018.

Summary:  Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. policy in Africa has focused primarily on defeating Al-Qaeda franchises and other violent extremists.  Djibouti’s natural deep-water harbor and stable government have made it the primary transshipment point for maritime trade in Northeastern Africa and as a naval base.  The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) recent investment in the Port of Djibouti, a country with a U.S. military base, begins another chapter in geopolitical competition.

Text:  The U.S. has a standing requirement for overseas bases to support its global operations.  The U.S. Navy ship USS Cole was attacked in October 2000 in Yemen by Al Qaeda.  In 2003, the U.S. established Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) on the French Army’s Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to support combat operations in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2007, a reorganization of the U.S. military’s unified command structure created United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) based in Germany.  In Djibouti, since the establishment of USAFRICOM, the CJTF-HOA mission has increased with the growth of al-Qaeda and other groups such as the Islamic State, the conflict in Libya and Yemen, and pirate attacks on merchant shipping in the region.  In addition to the U.S., Camp Lemonnier is used by France, Japan, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners.

Djibouti’s growth as a transshipment port has increased with the global demand for containerized shipping[1].  Additionally, Africa depends on maritime shipping to carry 90% of its imports and exports.  France created the port of Djibouti in 1888 and it became the capital of French Somaliland in 1892.  Once established, the port of Djibouti quickly became an important refueling station and cargo storage facility for ships traversing the Red Sea to and from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal.  During the closure of the Suez Canal (1967-1975) Djibouti suffered a severe decline in shipping volume.

Today, Djibouti is the linchpin to the PRC’s access to trade with Africa.  Business Tech’s 2015 assessment of African shipping ports states, “Djibouti’s is the only reliable port along the main shipping lanes between Europe and the Gulf and also between Asia on the eastern coast of Africa.” Additionally, Ethiopia lost its access to the sea during its war with Eritrea (1998-2000) and now relies on Djibouti as its transshipment access point.

In 2013, PRC President Xi Jinping, announced the resurgence of the ancient “Silk Road” which linked the PRC to markets in the Middle East and Europe and the idea was formalized in the Belt and Road Action Plan released in 2015.  This plan set out to improve trade relationships through infrastructure investments.  The PRC planned to invest $8 trillion for infrastructure in 68 countries which included Djibouti[2].  The port of Djibouti is critical to both the PRC’s African and European Roads. With the increasing demand for port services, the PRC negotiated to expand existing facilities, build new port facilities, and expand the inland transportation network of Djibouti and Ethiopia.  Due to the lack of natural resources, Djibouti depends on the revenue of its transportation facilities and a 2015 International Monetary Fund Report states “Diversifying [Djibouti’s] economic base remains difficult given that the country lacks natural resources and [its] agriculture and industrial sectors are almost non-existent[3].”

The PRC is the largest source of capital in Djibouti and has provided 40% of the financing for Djibouti’s major infrastructure projects.  Additionally, PRC-based firms built three of the largest projects in Djibouti and the PRC is the minority owners and operators of two of the three[4].

Since the emergence of the Somali pirate threat, the PRC has sought basing rights for the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) ships which joined in the international effort to protect shipping in the region.  The PRC’s interest in a navy base was born out of several ship engineering problems that developed while PLA(N) ships were deployed to the region and military ties had not been established between the PRC and Djibouti.  Although it was only speculated at the time, the PRC negotiated basing rights for the PLA(N) ships in a 2015 finance package and the base became active in September 2017.  The South China Morning Post reported, “The scale of the wharf should allow for the docking of a four-ship flotilla at least, including China’s new generation Type-901 supply ship with a displacement of more than 40,000 tons, destroyers and frigates, as well as amphibious assault ships for combat and humanitarian missions[5].”

The Trump administration released its 2017 National Security Strategy and though the administration appears to be aware of the situation in Djibouti stating, “China is expanding its economic and military presence in Africa, growing from a small investor in the continent two decades ago into Africa’s largest trading partner today,” the strategy lacks any concrete steps describing how U.S. diplomacy should proceed in the region.

An analysis of U.S. soft power in the Trump administration was recently published in Foreign Policy by Max Boot.  The article notes a recent Gallup Poll of “approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%.”  While the PRC is leveraging its economic power to enhance its military position, Boot opines that Trump’s America First campaign has resulted in the declining global opinion of the U.S. which in the long-term may result in a global environment more hostile to U.S. interests.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Henry Kissinger was quoted regarding trends and events that emerged from the Cold War and concludes, “…the rise of India and China is more important than the fall of the Soviet Union[6].”  The U.S. and PRC competition in Djibouti is only the beginning.  While both nations assess each others military forces in Djibouti, other instruments of national power are at work both in Djibouti and elsewhere on the continent.  The U.S. and PRC competition in Africa will likely expand, and be worthy of monitoring over the coming decades.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] Africa’s biggest shipping ports. (2015, March 8). Business Tech https://businesstech.co.za/news/general/81995/africas-biggest-shipping-ports/

[2] Bruce-Lockhart, Anna. China’s $900 billion New Silk Road. What you need to know. World Economic Forum, June 26, 2017 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/china-new-silk-road-explainer/

[3] Djibouti Selected Subjects. International Monetary Fund. November 18, 2015 https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16249.pdf

[4] Downs Erica, and Jeffrey Becker, and Patrick deGategno. China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of Chinas First Overseas Base. The CNA Corporation, July 2017. https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DIM-2017-U-015308-Final2.pdf

[5] Chan, Minnie. (2017, September 27). China plans to build Djibouti facility to allow naval flotilla to dock at first overseas base. South China Morning Post. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2112926/china-plans-build-djibouti-facility-allow-naval

[6] Mead, W. R. (2018, February 5). A word from Henry Kissinger. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 6, 2018, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-word-from-henry-kissinger-1517876551



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