China’s Increasing Djibouti Presence Represents Growing Power Competition in Africa
While American officials have expressed grave concerns over a possible deal being made between the Djiboutian government to give China control of a strategically located Djiboutian port, the possible agreement is only the latest example of a recent increase in competition between China and other countries for influence in Africa.
Speculation comes after the Djiboutian government seized control of the port, the Doraleh Container Terminal, from Dubai-based DP World last month. To add to American concern, Djibouti signed an agreement on Tuesday to expand the port with a Singaporean company that works with China Merchants Port Holdings Co., a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE).
The port, which accommodates China’s only overseas military base, sits at the Southern entrance to the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal. Given this strategic location, Djibouti could, in fact, play a key role in China’s recently announced One Belt, One Road strategy. The plan, for which China has pledged $124 billion in funding, grants and loans, aims to expand links between China and Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere.
American officials, however, view China’s interests in Djibouti as being potentially threatening, especially since Djibouti is also home to a key United States military post that serves as a launch pad for American operations in Africa. Thus, there are concerns that a potential Chinese take-over of the port could mark the beginning of a growing Chinese military presence in Africa.
"Djibouti happens to be the first — there will be more," said Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, hinting that China is looking to expand its influence in the region.
China, however, is not alone in seeking to expand its interests Africa. The United States has recently been increasing its military operations in the region against groups like Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and ISIL. According to a United States Africa Command 2018 Posture Statement, the United States now has 1,800 personnel fighting joint missions across 13 nation in Africa. As a result, China could see its actions in Djibouti as being justified given the already heavy American military presence in Africa.
In a daily news briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to American concern, saying China’s cooperation with Africa was not directed at excluding any party in the continent, including the United States.
“We hope that the U.S. side can objectively and fairly view China’s development and China-Africa cooperation,” Shuang said.
Other countries have also expanded their military roles in the region. France, for example, has dozens of military bases located across Africa, while the United Arab Emirates has begun building a naval post in Somaliland. In addition, Spain, Japan, and Turkey also all have military posts in Djibouti, while Saudi Arabia recently announced its intention to open a base in the country as well.
Located on a narrow strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti serves as a vital shipping lane connecting the Middle East and Africa. In fact, Djibouti is often used as a staging ground for foreign trade with African countries, most significantly Ethiopia, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Thus, given Djibouti’s strategic location, foreign powers could see establishing posts in the country as a way of securing their place in Djibouti’s heavy trade traffic.
With this increasing foreign presence in Africa, analysts are arguing that the continent is becoming a new arena in which foreign powers can compete for territorial interests and showcase their respective military abilities. As Eastern Africa remains engulfed in several wars, foreign powers could, in fact, see a perfect opportunity to use military assistance to push their own interests, and perhaps even make African countries more militarily and economically dependent on them.
So, as revisionist countries like China look to increase their roles in Africa and elsewhere, Africa could prove to become a staging ground for conflict among foreign powers competing for influence on the continent.