Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti (P6)
Posted Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
In deepening their security and intelligence presence in Djibouti at a time of unease between Riyadh and Washington, they will be keen to explore potential security partnerships with China. As recently as 2014, Beijing sought to forge joint counterterrorism training programs with the Yemeni government that Saudi Arabia is now fighting to reinstall. More recently, Beijing made a rare break with its policy of neutrality between Iran and Saudi Arabia to express support for the Saudi position in Yemen. In January 2016, King Salman hosted a landmark visit to Riyadh by Chinese President Xi Jinping, together with high-level meetings between senior security and intelligence officials of both countries. The strengthening of these ties may serve to lessen Saudi reliance on American support.
The importance of Djibouti has become a popular topic of discussion throughout the Saudi-allied Arab world. Prominent voices in Egypt, for example, are talking about building a base there too, while other Gulf allies are ramping up their own soft power projects in the country. The following video montage begins with a clip from Tawfiq Okasha—an eccentric, ultranationalist Egyptian pundit known for his fondness of Israel—in which he makes the case for a Djibouti base. In perhaps a sign of the times, he bolsters his argument by saying that Djiboutians are one of the lost tribes of Israel, and therefore “good people.”
Grappling with New U.S. Challenges
In a February letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) raised alarms about China’s rising influence in Djibouti: “[We are] worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counter-terrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region.” Recognizing Beijing’s soft power gains, they castigated the Djibouti leadership for its “cozy relationship with China,” and dubbed the government of Ismail Omar Guelleh a “corrupt and repressive regime.” Guelleh is indeed a human rights violator, and the lawmakers’ criticism have been echoed repeatedly by the White House in recent months. Doing so has of course done little to improve Washington’s relationship with Guelleh: Judging from the angry reaction in Djiboutian state media, he reads the American denunciations as support for his political opponents. When Djibouti holds its presidential elections on April 8, the incumbent’s likely victory will bring the government another step closer to China—and a step away from the United States.
America’s shifting circumstances in Djibouti—and, by extension, the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia—are a symptom of its broader political and military withdrawal from conflicts in which longtime Asian and Arab allies have a stake. The situation also reflects the weakness of Washington’s commitment and capacity to wield soft power in politically contested foreign environments. It will ultimately be difficult for Washington to address the concerns about Djibouti raised by American lawmakers and Taiwanese analyst Lai Yueqian without restoring its support for longtime allies in the Middle and Far East, as well as deploying American soft power alongside military might. To be sure, the U.S. should welcome efforts by China to help protect civilians from the region’s tumult and secure the sea lanes for international trade. But it should also be prepared for a formidable new presence in the area capable of challenging American objectives politically and militarily.