Date: Wednesday, 30 August 2017
With China opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti early August, the tiny African country’s status as one of the world’s most important military bases is confirmed.
The third smallest nation on Africa’s mainland is also home to the largest US military base on the continent. Djibouti also houses military bases for France, Italy and Japan, while plans are in motion for Saudi Arabia to build a base of its own in the Horn of Africa nation.
The list of global military powers establishing themselves in Djibouti is growing. There are some big personalities clamouring for space in the tiny African nation, too. China’s move into Djibouti raised plenty of eyebrows in the US and its Western allies while their relationship with Saudi Arabia is more grey than black and white.
So how did Djibouti turn from one of the world’s smallest nations into its most important military base?
In a complex world, Djibouti finds itself becoming the geopolitical centre of a global chess match. Its roots go back to French colonial times when it was the capital of French Somaliland. To this day, one of France’s largest overseas forces is stationed in Djibouti and its base also hosts troops from Germany and Spain.
However, it was the was the 9/11 attacks in the US that accelerated Djibouti’s rise to geopolitical stardom. The Bush administration turned to the Horn of Africa nation as the base for its war on terror. But the importance of Djibouti’s strategic location wasn’t fully realised until stability in the Middle East and parts of Africa deteriorated.
The US war on terror sparked an aggressive backlash of Islamic extremism, which now knocks on Djibouti’s door in neighbouring Somalia. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring uprising brought chaos to more of the Middle East and North Africa. Which the US aggravated further with its involvement in Syria and Yemen.
Source: Al Jazeera
Then you have the issue of piracy emanating from Somalia along one of the world’s most important trade routes. Djibouti’s port not only establishes it as a key trade point for North and East Africa but an important station for international forces looking to protect their own trade interests.
However, Djibouti’s geopolitical pull isn’t purely about location. Despite being surrounded by conflict, the tiny Horn of Africa nation is one of the continents most stable – and this won’t change in a hurry with the increasing military presence. Djibouti is the chance benefactor of conflict across multiple regions.
Djibouti’s military reputation is one of neutrality, but some analysts warn the country needs to stay on the right side of opportunism. Welcoming geopolitical rivals the US and China into such a small country is a bold enough mood in itself, but there’s a new conflict brewing in Djibouti’s distant neighbourhoods.
Qatar has already removed its troops from the Djibouti-Eritrea border after the Horn of Africa nation reduced diplomatic ties over Qatar’s alleged involvement in supporting extremism.
Meanwhile, Dubai-based DP World is pushing the UAE to build ports and military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland after Djibouti annulled its contract with the company.
Every country Djibouti welcomes comes with implications, too. Western powers aren’t the only nations nervous about China’s growing influence in the port nation. India is increasingly vocal about being surrounded by Chinese commercial and military facilities – dubbed the String of Pearls. While Japan is also increasing its military presence in Djibouti in an effort to counter China’s growing influence.
The more countries Djibouti gets close to, the greater potential for diplomatic tensions with countries.
“The Horn of Africa and the Middle East are currently rough neighbourhoods, and Djibouti may find itself making enemies, not through any action of its own, but as a consequence of the actions of its military guests,” political analyst Matthew Bryden recently said.