Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P4)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Are Chinese and American pursuits in the vicinity of Djibouti necessarily a zero-sum game? Some of China’s stated goals do not conflict with American aspirations, and to the contrary, may benefit both superpowers as well as their allies: Both the growing Chinese capacity to evacuate citizens from war-torn areas and its further enhancement of anti-piracy operations are each a “public good.” On the other hand, a different term in Beijing’s political vocabulary raises more disturbing possibilities. In our conversation with FPRI Senior Fellow June Teufel Dreyer, she stressed the principle of “All Under Heaven”—rooted in Chinese imperial history—which places Chinese central authority at the epicenter of a tributary system of dominance over lesser powers. Some analysts of China see the country’s recent installation of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets on Woody Island in the South China Sea as a manifestation of this supremacist tendency. One might ask whether the construction of a Djibouti base reflects the extension of “All Under Heaven” beyond China’s traditional orbit.
At a time of rapid Chinese construction of aircraft and aircraft carriers and more serious competition with American military industries, the base in Djibouti could indeed reflect a Chinese aspiration to eventually meet and surpass the United States as a military and economic power in the area. In January 2016, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a 72-hour exercise involving thousands of marines and the navy special operations regiment in the Gobi Desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The area’s topography and climate resemble much of North Africa and the Sahel. Between “All Under Heaven” and China’s stated goal of housing up to 10,000 Chinese servicemen in Djibouti, such exercises offer ample basis for concern.
Beijing’s hard power initiative in Djibouti is meanwhile accompanied by its soft power initiatives to build ties with state and society alike. The $14 billion in Chinese support for infrastructure development, widely publicized in Djibouti, has generated enormous goodwill with the population. Far exceeding U.S. spending, the injection is also an investment in the government of President Isma’il Omar Guelleh. There are also cultural ventures, such as the new Confucius Institute in Djibouti City, which Beijing typically uses to cultivate personal ties and “assets” within the society. Add to all this China’s $1.1 billion in trade in 2014—roughly ten times that of the United States. As Chinese influence grows in Djibouti, its ability to influence the government’s foreign policy and security strategies promises to grow along with it.
The Saudi Posture
From a Saudi perspective, stationing troops in Djibouti is both a defensive and a potential offensive measure in its pan-regional conflict with Iran, with particular bearing on the nearby war in Yemen. The defensive aspect was on display in mid-February, when Saudi intelligence officials, tracking the flow of munitions from Iran to its Houthi proxy militia in Yemen, discovered that the Islamic Republic was using Djibouti as a waystation. A ship en route to Yemen carrying encrypted military communication equipment and other hardware had originated in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The Kingdom intercepted it en route, and recognized the importance of strengthening its capacity to act in and around Djibouti. In terms of “offense,” Ben Ho Wan Beng, a military analyst in Singapore, speculates that given the Houthi presence in western Yemen, Riyadh could use the base to “open up a new front against the Houthis, who [would] then face the prospect of being attacked from another axis.”