Djibouti: the Berlin of the New Cold War?

The little-known quasi-microstate, strategically located in front of the southern counterpart of the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, has become the only country with direct military interface between the United States and China.

‘I absolutely believe there needs not to be a New Cold War.’ These are the words that US President Joe Biden uttered on November 14th at his first ever face-to-face meeting as president with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali. The statement was, however, followed by a less reassuring reminder. The US President subsequently reiterated the superpower’s firm commitment to protecting Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion: ‘I made it clear that our policy on Taiwan has not changed at all.’ Indeed, however peacefully and comfortingly the dialogue between the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies may have taken place, there are significant tensions that could escalate more easily than it may be desirable to believe. Whilst Taiwan’s status is arguably the most heated issue, there are numerous other ignited disputes across the Indo-Pacific macro-region. Djibouti, which can be argued to be a ‘diorama’ of the gloomy perspective of a future Second Cold War, is a prime example of these. Ever since China established its first military base on foreign soil in the small African country in 2016, joining five other military bases and the militaries of eight different countries, including the United States, considerable tension has arisen.

The background

The country today known as Djibouti originated from the territory colonised by France in the Horn of Africa, called back then French Somaliland. The country’s independence was not granted until 1977, and the government was formed by the only ruling party at the time. This, however, solely represented the Issas, the dominant ethnic group of Somali origin, constituting 70% of the country’s population. The remaining 30%, made up of the Affars, was completely marginalised, thus triggering inauspicious tension within the newborn country. In 1991, after neighbouring countries’ authoritarian governments were overthrown, the FRUD (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy), which was mainly made up of the Affar minority, planned attacks on the Djiboutian government.

Since then, Djibouti has been the theatre of different armed conflicts during its short history as an independent country, which have resulted in the permanent presence of foreign forces in its territory. The Djiboutian civil war lasted for three years until 1994, with the victory of the government supported by the French military. France subsequently spearheaded the process for a peace agreement and mediated to democratise the country through government positions held by the FRUD, which was legalised as one of the four parties in the Djiboutian Constitution. These measures were aimed at facilitating social inclusion of the Affars through more diverse representation in the government. However, the tension remained, and aggressions by the FRUD guerrillas took place until 2001, when they officially laid down their arms.

Furthermore, Djibouti has been the scene of border conflict disputes with Eritrea. Both countries claimed the Ras Doumeira region and the nearby coastal islands of the Red sea (Doumeira and Kallida). The tension for this land culminated

in a tragic encounter that took place in June 2008, when Eritrean troops made an incursion of seven kilometres into the Djiboutian territory. It is estimated by the reports that 150 casualties combined on both sides resulted from the clash. Despite the occasional outbreak of similar clashes ever since, the two countries formally agreed to normalise their relations in 2018.

Djibouti’s step into the international limelight

Djibouti has attracted international attention due to its geostrategic location; the country's coastline starts in the Bad el-Mandeb Strait, one of the busiest sea trade routes in the world. With a naval traffic of approximately 20,000 ships transiting through the Strait yearly, the access from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean makes its location crucial for international trade.

The fact that neighbouring countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen face an unstable situation only increases the demand for military control of the Strait, which has been further amplified by attacks perpetrated by the Somali pirates.

As regards the international presence after the colonial rule of France, the French Forces remained present in Djibouti when the country became independent, at the time as part of a provisional protocol signed in June 1977, which laid down the conditions for the stationing of the forces as a defence agreement. The diplomatic relations between France and Djibouti recently saw a new defence cooperation treaty signed in Paris in December 2011, through which France enhanced its military support in the country. The presence of other Western-aligned powers grew considerably in 2011, when Japan opened a military base named after the self-defence protocol, which is currently under expansion. Similarly, Italy opened the ‘Amedeo Guillet’ Support Military Base in 2013, which is hardly surprising in light of their historical influence in Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia as a colonial power between the end of the 19th century and the mid-20th century.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US Government created the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa to conduct stability operations in the Horn of Africa. The military formation was deployed in the immediate vicinity of the international airport at Camp Lemonnier, which used to be a military settlement of the French Foreign Legion. The hosting of foreign military bases is an important contribution to Djibouti’s GDP. Their rents totalled $2.3 billion in 2017, which constitutes 5% of the country’s GDP. For instance, only the United States pays $63 million a year to rent Camp Lemonnier from the local government. Saudi Arabia is the last country that joined the list, having been granted the Djiboutian government's permission in 2017 and launched the construction of its facilities shortly after. India has also shown interest in establishing a military presence in Djibouti lately, as it is the closest great power to the country, being located on the other side of the Arabian Sea. For India, the fact that the Strait constitutes one of the key routes of its commercial trade with Europe represents one of the reasons behind this interest. In addition to the military bases, Djibouti also hosts a Spanish airbase and a German contingent based at the French military base.

The Chinese watershed

Since the establishment of the US military base at Camp Lemonnier in 2002, relations between the superpower and the Djiboutian government were highly cooperative. However, after having impeded the establishment of a Russian base in 2014 and initiated a renovation of Camp Lemonnier, US officials were blindsided by the Djiboutian government’s approval for the establishment of a Chinese base two years later. This immediately aroused American concerns due to the the alarmingly close proximity of the new base to Camp Lemonnier and the Port of Djibouti, which constitutes the primary source of supply for the maintenance of 4,000 members of the US personnel of the base. Djibouti’s decision to consolidate its ties with China reflects the country’s philosophy to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. With this strategy, Djibouti aims to diversify over $100 million in rent payments for the foreign bases, thus obtaining an insurance policy against any neighbouring country that may be inclined to ‘swallow it up’.

With China’s abundant funds, Djibouti has the potential of becoming the ‘Singapore of Africa’, as the logistic pole between Asia and Africa, and the Guelleh government certainly intends to fulfil it. However, the United States has thus far shown itself extremely wary of this stance. It is surely not necessary to be very imaginative to draw a discomforting parallel between these dynamics and the old Cold War strategy of exploiting the geopolitical struggle in order to enrich oneself through the investment competition. The first instance of this occurred in 2014, when President Guelleh deployed the threat of permitting the construction of a Russian base in Djibouti in order to raise the rent for Camp Lemonnier, and later allowed China to comfortably establish its first base on foreign territory as soon as US investments had reached their maximum volume.

Furthermore, US National Security Advisor John Bolton accused Beijing of persuading African countries into neo-colonial relations of both military and economic dependency through the growing credit offered to these countries. Militarily, China has markedly scaled up its sale of weapons and expanded its training programmes across the continent. Economically, it has been accused on numerous occasions of setting ‘debt traps’ to countries that are in dire need of economic and infrastructural investment. In this regard, American fears intensified when in 2017 the Sri Lankan government took out loans from China by far superior to its financial capabilities for the construction of the Hambantota Harbour, and eventually saw itself obliged to surrender 70% of the Harbour for 99 years in exchange for $1.12 billion. In light of this, Bolton warned that any country that does not offer diplomatic support to Washington should not expect to receive assistance from it.

Despite these concerns, official dialogue between the two bases seems to have been peaceful thus far. Yet, their proximity has resulted in a number of tense incidents, which, in a more internationally bipolar future, could lead to unintentional escalations. Concurrently, the repercussions that the establishment of the Chinese base has had on the antiterrorist operations undertaken by the US and its allies have further exacerbated these tensions. At the same time, however, they have also led them to reassess the topicality of these operations, as well as their presence in the region. Thus, as the Western countries spectate China pursue the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through its new base, which contrasts starkly with their hitherto adopted geopolitical strategy, they have begun to consider deploying their military resources toward a new, more current long-term objective.

This shift follows an ongoing review of American priorities, which have so far been defined by obsolete conceptions of national power, overly focused on the military sphere and detached from the economic, infrastructural, and diplomatic spheres. An American official’s statement that ‘What was thought of as a support base for peacekeeping and piracy missions is slowly being turned into a power projection platform’ is therefore certainly not too bold.

Djibouti will continue being the table of a card game quarrel between great powers in the upcoming years, in which local financial ambition fuses with the pursuit of international geopolitical interests, generating harsh military tensions. The country is a striking example of how the new disputes of the present century over a strategic location with unclear alignment shift and unfold in very complex scenarios. This has created yet a new barrier, this time materialising in an unprecedentedly close setting, given the military presence of both superpowers in the same capital city. At the same time, the ‘diorama’ of a potential New Cold War that money-hungry Djibouti has recently turned into is yet one more reminder of how global geopolitics has taken on a far bolder economic shade than ever before, which China certainly seems to have realised more (if not induced in the first place) than the US. To what extent China intends to alter the present structure of the international system is the subject of a heated debate. One question stands out: could Djibouti be the Berlin of a potential New Cold War?





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