Djibouti: Cultivating Diverse Economic, Military Partnerships

China is in negotiations with Djibouti to open a military base in the country, adding to its current roster of French, U.S., Japanese and EU military facilities. In an email interview,David Styan, lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and author of the report “Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub,” discussed Djibouti’s foreign relations.

WPR: Who are Djibouti’s main regional partners?

David Styan: The dominant regional partner is Ethiopia. Djibouti’s small economy is essentially a gateway; the vast majority of Addis Ababa’s fast-growing trade flows transit through Djibouti’s new container and oil terminals. China’s reconstruction of the 460-mile railway to Addis Ababa is almost complete. From 2016, this will further boost trade ties and amplify current flows of foreign direct investment—notably Chinese and Turkish—into both countries.

Djibouti shares extensive linguistic and trade links not only with Ethiopia, but also with Somaliland and Somalia, where it also contributes troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Being culturally and geographically close to Yemen, Djibouti has received both evacuated foreign nationals and Yemenis fleeing the current fighting. Many now take refuge in the small northern port of Obock, and the country has become a significant hub for humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

Djiboutians also have substantive, albeit fractious, economic ties with the United Arab Emirates. Dubai World Ports manages their container port, which is currently the subject of complex litigation.

WPR: Who are Djibouti’s main international partners, and what is driving these relationships?

Styan: Internationally, Djibouti’s main partners include key Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Arab League states. Djibouti hosts the United States’ only permanent military base in Africa: AFRICOM’s Camp Lemonnier. The base currently has almost 4,000 U.S. personnel, with its lease having been renewed last year for a further 10 years. Visiting Djibouti on May 6, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the expansion of U.S. bilateral ties and Djibouti’s central role in multilateral operations. The latter encompass broader anti-terror operations—including drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia—and a range of anti-piracy initiatives.

Djibouti is the operational base for the European Union’s anti-piracy mission EUNAVFOR. In April, NATO opened a liaison office there. In 2011, Japan chose Djibouti as the location of their first-ever post-1945 overseas military facility, where 600 troops now complement Tokyo’s maritime and civil cooperation program. With a Japanese-funded anti-piracy headquarters now overshadowed by a vast Chinese port and free-trade zone construction site, Djibouti is fast consolidating its role as the world’s foremost multinational maritime laboratory.

Amid such diversified alliances, it is easy to overlook the fact that Djibouti remains France’s largest military base in Africa. As a platform for Franco-American and NATO military cooperation, it still eclipses Chad—host to France’s Barkhane force in the Sahel. Alongside persistent French military and diplomatic ties, elite Djiboutians maintain their links to the francophone world, including Quebec, which hosts a significant Djiboutian diaspora.

WPR: How have Djibouti’s ties with China evolved in recent years?

Styan: Economic ties have developed rapidly, reflecting above all Beijing’s growing investment in Ethiopia. The renovated Addis-Djibouti railway will directly link Ethiopia both to the Doraleh container port and to a vast new Chinese-funded and constructed port facility at Khor Ambado. Both sites lie just to the west of Djibouti’s capital city. China has also obtained an equity stake in the state-run port authority, and recently agreed to construct a new civilian airport.

China has been active in anti-piracy operations in the region since 2008; these involve regular interaction with NATO and EU vessels in and around Djibouti. In May, Djibouti’s President Ismael Omar Guelleh confirmed long-standing reports that China was seeking a formal naval presence in the country, on a par with other states. Notwithstanding alarmist comment in the U.S. media and Congress, more measured analysis highlights both the inevitability and the possible multilateral benefits of such a move.