In a recent interview with Reuters, Djibouti’s authoritarian President Ismail Omar Guelleh confirmed a long-rumored Chinese naval base in the tiny East African nation would, in fact, soon be a reality. Military planners and political leaders in the United States, who are heavily reliant on Djibouti’s bases and installations, have been keeping a wary eye on China’s desire to acquire some of that same operating space for itself. Guelleh, unsurprisingly, framed the new breakthrough in Sino-Djiboutian relations as a perfectly normal business decision, saying: “The Chinese government has decided to move to this area. They have the right to defend their interests, just like everybody else does.”
While China makes inroads into one of Africa’s smallest (but most strategically situated) countries, the seven countries already using installations in Djibouti have reason to grow concerned over whether the Chinese presence could eventually edge them out. Besides the soon-to-be-deployed equipment and personnel from Beijing, six countries use Djibouti as a base for regional operations: Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and the United States. The first four are primarily focused on fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia, with Japan (whose shipping is heavily reliant on the Red Sea and Suez Canal for its shipping connection to markets in Europe) particularly concerned by the safety of regional shipping lanes. France, for its part, has continued to maintain a military presence since Djibouti became independent in 1977. The United States, unsurprisingly, has by far the largest footprint; aside from anti-piracy operations, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier supports 4,000 personnel and contractors under the U.S. Africa Command and provides the staging ground for the special operations forces and unmanned drones that target al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements in Yemen and Somalia.
From the Chinese perspective, of course, building permanent facilities in Djibouti is a pragmatic step to securing China’s growing commercial interests and political clout in both the Indian Ocean and on the African continent. Having permanent infrastructure at their disposal would also go a long way toward addressing the supply and logistical challenges which have hampered the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) while undertaking missions further afield over the past several years. While China’s growing business interests on the continent (and its citizens) have come under attack in Cameroon, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, and Angola, China’s ability to project power in African waters is currently so limited that it had to rent ships to evacuate over 35,000 Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011. Of course, the multinational anti-piracy missions currently protecting shipping in the Gulf of Aden offers a convenient official justification for the new agreements. Speaking at a press conference the next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei relied on that pretext when fielding questions on the newly deepened bilateral relationship.
Guelleh on the ICC’s watch
As far as China and Djibouti’s autocratic President Guelleh are concerned, forging closer ties provides strategic advantages to both without the strings that are increasingly complicating Djibouti’s relationship with the West. Guelleh has been in power since 1999 and is reneging on a 2011 campaign promise by running for a fourth term in the April presidential elections. Since the beginning of his reign, opposition candidates and other political rivals have been arrested and jailed for challenging his grip on power. While Guelleh refuses to step aside, his security forces have not shied away from using lethal force to repress democratic protests and prevent the type of widespread popular movements seen elsewhere in the Arab world. Just this past December, 19 people were killed by government forces attacking a religious gathering and a meeting of political dissidents.
The flare-up in violence made the International Criminal Court declare that “the Office of the Prosecutor is following up on the developments in the country,” an ominous sign that is meant to dissuade Guelleh from resorting to further violence ahead of the April poll. If indicted, Guelleh would join an infamous list of 39 other human rights abusers that have already been singled out by the Court.
In the United States, both Congress and the State Department have grown increasingly critical of the Djiboutian leader’s human rights abuses and dictatorial policies, although the priorities of military basing rights have thus far precluded any serious pressure on Guelleh. Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, who represents California’s 50th District and is himself a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, has urged the American government to demand Guelleh step down at the end of his third term. This debate in Washington highlights in and of itself the differing approaches American and Chinese leaders take to their presence abroad; Beijing, itself the capital of a repressive and undemocratic state, pays very little attention is paid to ugly human rights records or breakdowns of democratic rule when choosing overseas partners.
Considering how vital it is to have a reliable base of operations on the Red Sea—especially now, given the success al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and now the Islamic State enjoy in both Somalia and a disintegrating Yemen—American military planners will be paying careful attention to Guelleh’s Chinese overtures. If Djibouti’s ruling clique decide they would rather have less morally demanding Chinese dollars and military hardware take the place of Westerners, the ability of U.S. and other forces to operate in one of the most unstable parts of the world could be seriously compromised. Already, the promise of Chinese competition for space in the tiny country has driven up costs for the other forces present. When the U.S. military signed a new 20-year lease for Camp Lemonnier in 2014, Guelleh doubled the rent to $70 million a year.
Djibouti is undoubtedly a highly strategic location to maintain a U.S. base, but the convenience of a central location should not give Guelleh’s government a blank check to indulge in dictatorial practices. If Guelleh’s obstinance in leaving power ultimately results in violent confrontations between the two sides, the stability of the country (already a rarity in the region) would be at risk.