Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P2)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
The American Posture
As the only American base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier serves a vital function for US AFRICOM. Housing 4,000 military and civilian personnel, it is the nerve center of six drone launching stations across the continent, which have attacked targets as far-flung as Al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Yemeni-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and Air Force surveillance craft converge to process and pool intelligence at the camp. It also serves as headquarters to Task Force 48-4, a counterterrorism unit that targets militants in East Africa and Yemen. Special Forces rely on it too: In 2012, when Navy SEALs rescued American and Danish hostages from Somalia, they brought them to safety in Camp Lemonnier. And as a springboard for American-led anti-piracy operations, Camp Lemonnier helps the U.S. maintain its role as the primary guarantor of mercantile security in the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The significance of the base grows only greater amid regional conflagration: The U.S. has been using it to meet its pledge of technical and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen.
In 2014, the U.S. signed a new 20-year lease on the base with the Djiboutian government, and committed over $1.4 billion to modernize it in the years to come. This significant expenditure bucks the overall trend of diminishing American military commitments overseas. For example, President Obama has announced plans to reduce the number of active naval vessels to 1917 numbers, possibly including aircraft carriers.
As the segments below will show, America’s status in the country stands to be affected by the activities of the Chinese and Saudi bases. It may also be affected by the two countries’ soft power deployments, each aiming to influence the cultural and political fiber of the country and, by extension, the policies of its government. America’s own soft power commitments have been minimal: the U.S. supplies $3 million worth of food aid annually through USAID as part of the U.N. World Food Program, runs modest health and education projects, and netted only $152 million in trade in 2015. Nor is there any concerted effort to enter the public discussion in Djibouti in the service of American goals or values.
The Chinese Posture
By contrast to the U.S., China has never previously established a base beyond its “near abroad.” Thus the Djibouti project, however modest, fuels the perception that China’s military footprint is growing. Sending such a message may itself be among Beijing’s goals. David Shedd, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told us that “[The Chinese] want to signal to the world that they have a worldwide presence. Part of the mission is simply defined as being seen. That in and of itself is defined as an interest.”[
With respect to its potential operational significance, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says, “Facilities will mainly be used for logistical support and personnel recuperation of the Chinese armed forces conducting such missions as maritime escort in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance.” It would also enable fast evacuation for any of the million Chinese citizens now living in the Middle East and Africa should they require it. The need to prepare for such eventualities became clear to China in the bloody aftermath of the Arab Spring: It evacuated 35,680 nationals employed mainly in Libya’s oil industry, and 629 more from Yemen soon thereafter. During the Libya evacuation, China had only one frigate available in the vicinity, so most of the evacuees had to be flown out of the country on chartered commercial planes.