U.S. Wary of Its New Neighbor in Djibouti: A Chinese Naval Base - ( P 3)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
American officials say they were blindsided by Djibouti’s decision, announced last year, to give China a 10-year lease for the land. Just two years earlier, Susan Rice, the national security adviser under President Barack Obama, had flown here to head off a similar arrangement with Russia.
Shortly afterward, the White House announced a 20-year lease renewal that doubled its annual payments for Camp Lemonnier, to $63 million, and a plan to invest more than $1 billion to upgrade the installation.
If the Pentagon’s current base restrictions are any guide, American and Chinese troops are unlikely to be sharing beers any time soon. American officials, citing possible security threats, keep most personnel confined to the 570-acre rectangle of scrubland, which is a 10-minute drive from the center of Djibouti city. It is a policy that stirs some discontent among those who often spend yearlong stints at Camp Lemonnier without venturing outside.
By contrast, French military personnel can often be seen jogging through the city and socializing with locals. Americans who work for the United States Embassy also live in the community and say they feel little threat to their safety.
Life on base can be monotonous, broken up by visits to the fitness center or meals at the camp’s Subway sandwich outlet. Capt. James Black, the camp’s commanding officer, said one of his primary challenges was to provide salubrious distractions for those stationed here. The distractions include free Wi-Fi, a movie theater, Texas Hold ’em tournaments and the occasional soccer match with Italian and German troops.
“We’re like a landlocked aircraft carrier,” Captain Black said during a recent tour of the installation, which is blasted in summer by broiling heat. “Part of my job is to create opportunities to give people a break and attend to their mental health needs.”
Local residents also crave more face time with the Americans. Some say Camp Lemonnier personnel could play a more active role in helping to alleviate Djibouti’s crushing poverty by building schools, painting hospitals or simply taking part in language exchanges.
Others, like Mohamed Ali Basha, the owner of a Yemeni-style restaurant that serves grilled fish and massive discs of baked flatbread, said he would welcome business from military personnel.
“I don’t understand why the Americans are so obsessed with security here, but I would be happy to close the restaurant for them if they would come,” Mr. Basha, 26, said. “Just call in advance.”
In interviews, Djiboutian officials expressed little concern that two strategic adversaries would be sharing space in a country the size of New Jersey. It helps that the Chinese are paying $20 million a year in rent on top of the billions they are spending to finance critical infrastructure, including ports and airports, a new rail line and a pipeline that will bring desperately needed drinking water from neighboring Ethiopia.
Critics say the surge of loans, which amount to 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, raises concerns about China’s leverage over the Djibouti government should it fall behind on debt payments.
“Such generous credit is itself a form of control,” said Mohamed Daoud Chehem, a prominent government critic. “We don’t know what China’s intentions really are.”
But on the city’s dusty, potholed streets, most people are pleased to see China joining the club of a half-dozen foreign militaries that have a presence here, among them Japan, Italy and Britain. Also here is a large contingent of French soldiers who stayed on after 1977, when the colony formerly known as French Somaliland gained independence.