Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P1)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
China and Saudi Arabia are building military bases next door to US AFRICOM in Djibouti—and bringing the consequences of American withdrawal from the region into stark relief.
by Joseph Braude and Tyler Jiang
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 more important security beachheads in the develohttp://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Braude/e/B001KDV64Kping 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.)
But now there are two new kids on the block: 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.
Neither the timing nor the confluence of these projects is mere coincidence. America’s diminishing global military footprint has begun to affect the calculation of allies and rivals alike, and the outsized role Djibouti is poised to play in its neighborhood presents a case in point of the consequences. An examination of the changing role the country plays in American, Chinese, and Arab security policy offers a glimpse into potential conflicts as well as opportunities arising from the shift—and some steps Americans can take to prepare for both.