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IslandsSociety.org: The Expansion of the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Friday, 24 November 2017

Last year, Japanese officials revealed that the Japanese Government would lease additional land to expand the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti. According to media reporting at the time, the expansion of the base is intended to serve as a counterweight to the expanding strategic footprint of China in Africa and the Middle East. The Japanese Government still plans to lease additional land to expand the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti. In fact, the Japanese Government hopes to finalize a lease on the additional land within a week or so. However, the Japanese Government does not intend to build on this land until the next fiscal year. This is due to cyclical budgetary constraints. Once the lease is finalized, it will be interesting to see whether the expansion of the base will lead to a further expansion of the functions of the base. At the end of the day, the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti serves as an important mechanism for advancing the normalization agenda of the Abe Administration. The expansion of the base therefore not only provides an opportunity to further expand the functions of the base. It also provides an opportunity to further reform Japanese security policy.

The Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti

The Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti is the first Japanese overseas military base since World War II. Opened on 5 July 2011, the base is located on the northwest side of the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Unlike the French Naval Base of Djibouti, the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti does not provide docking for naval ships. It is also considerably smaller than the American and French expeditionary bases at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. However, the base does provide the Japan Self-Defense Force with direct access to a joint civilian/military-use airport. It also provides the Japanese Self-Defense Force with easy access to the American, French, and Italian expeditionary bases. This is useful in supporting multinational operations.

Overseas Military Bases at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport (Source: OMBAI)
The Function of the Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti

The Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti was specifically designed to support counter-piracy operations in the immediate vicinity of the Gulf of Aden. The primary function of the base remains to provide support for counter-piracy operations. However, the Japanese Government now supports counter-piracy operations beyond just the immediate vicinity of the Gulf of Aden. In fact, the Japan Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces regularly conduct counter-piracy operations in a block of the Indian Ocean south of the island of Socotra Island, Yemen and east of the Puntland State of Somalia. These operations are in support of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151).

Approximate Location of Expanded Japanese Counter-Piracy Operations South of Socotra Island, Yemen (Source: OMBAI)
The function of the base has also expanded beyond support for counter-piracy operations. In recent years, the Japanese military has used the base to support peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. The Japanese military has also used the base to support the emergency evacuation of Japanese citizens from South Sudan. More recently, the function of the base expanded to support for multilateral non-combat exercises. In fact, the base was used to a joint-nation noncombatant evacuation operation (JN-NEO) exercise less than two months ago. This exercise was initiated by the Japanese Government. And, it marked the first time that the base has supported this kind of activity.

The Expansion of the Japan Self-Defenses Force Base in Djibouti

The Japan Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti was not designed to support current operational demands on the base. That is one of the main reasons why the Japanese Government is pursuing the lease of additional land that can be used to expand the base. According to foreign military officials, the Japanese Government has already identified an approximately 3-hectare parcel of land that they intend to lease. This land is part of an empty lot adjacent to northeast side of the current base. The Japanese Government has largely settled on the terms for the lease. In fact, the Japanese Government is close to finalizing the lease with the Djiboutian Government. The Japanese Government hopes to be able to do so in the next week or so. However, the Japanese Self-Defense Force is not in a position to immediately build upon the additional land due to cyclical budgetary constraints. For this reason, it is unlikely that the base facilities will be expanded before the next fiscal year.

 
Empty Lot Partially Sought by the Japanese Government (Source: OMBAI)

The Politics of the Japan Self-Defenses Force Base in Djibouti

If the expansion of the Japan Self-Defenses Force Base in Djibouti moves forward, it will be interesting to see whether the expansion of the base will be followed by an expansion of the functions of the base. As pointed out in a separate article, Japanese military activities in Eastern Africa are a significant element in Abe’s “historical mission” to amend the Japanese Constitution. In recent years, the Abe Administration has used counter-piracy operations in the Western Indian Ocean, peacekeeping operations on the African continent, emergency evacuation operations from Africa countries, and multilateral exercise in Djibouti to advance incremental changes in Japanese security policy. The Japanese Self-Defense Force Base in Djibouti enables these kinds of activities in Africa and the Middle East. The base therefore serves a higher political purpose. It is an important mechanism for advancing the normalization agenda of the Abe Administration. In this light, the expansion of the base not only provides an opportunity to further expand the functions of the base beyond support for counter-piracy operations. It also provides an opportunity to further normalize Japanese security policy beyond the reforms that have already taken place.

Michael Edward Walsh is a Research Fellow for African Studies at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He is also the Director of the Overseas Military Bases in Africa Initiative at the Islands Society. This article is derived from his ongoing doctoral research on counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia.

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