Djibouti : The Strategic Horn of Africa

China in the Horn of Africa to ringfence and New Delhi should be worried and prepared

Djibouti (Source: Wikipedia)

Djibouti is a tiny but strategically located country on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which, is the gateway to one of the world’s busiest trade routes, the Suez Canal. 10% of oil exports and 20% of commercial goods pass through the narrow strait right off Djibouti’s coast on their way to and from the Suez Canal. It is also of prime importance due to its proximity to volatile regions in the Middle East and the rest of Africa. The Geo-strategic location is cardinal as it connects to the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean that are regarded among the most strategically important in the world. Escalating hostility around the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have drawn international powers to Djibouti and highlighted the Gulf country’s keen interest in the region. Djibouti’s strategic location on the Horn of Africa has driven the U.S., France, and China to establish naval bases there to expand their military and maritime presence.

Growing Presence of Communist China in Djibouti

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army attends the opening ceremony of China’s military base in Djibouti — its first overseas naval base — in August 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

The early morning hours of July 11, 2017, marked a watershed moment for the People’s Republic of China. In an official ceremony at the port of Zhanjiang, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Shen Jinlong, “read an order for the construction of China’s first replenishment base in Djibouti, and conferred military flag on the fleets.” With a salute, Shen ordered the ships carrying Chinese military personnel to set sail on their mission to Djibouti.

Since 2016, there were speculations and concerns regarding a prospective Chinese military base in Djibouti. At first, China proposed the hypothesis that the military facility was merely for logistical and support purposes. However, an official release from Beijing said, “the facility was meant to assist the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the discharge of its international obligations by facilitating Chinese escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and humanitarian rescue missions in Africa and West Asia.”

The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which 78 nations are a part of, was initiated by President Xi Jinping in 2013. It is a foreign and economic strategy of China as it aims to create an economic and trade corridor extending from China’s west, through Central Asia, and finally into Europe.

Under this project, Chinese companies have financed and built massive infrastructure across African countries, particularly Djibouti. Africa’s largest port, railway service to Ethiopia, and the laying of cables under the sea that will transmit information and data across the region spanning from Kenya to Yemen are some projects which China undertook in Djibouti. But something that will leave you flabbergasted is that the government or companies of the host nation do not own these buildings, bridges, or infrastructure, but Chinese businesses do. Beijing puts its money where its mouth is, and cash-strapped African governments have turned east collectively. It has led China to establish a strong foothold in one of the most strategic locations on the continent. The world is watching China silently as China  consistently buys and establishing bases at key strategic places. The African nations welcomed the OBOR with warm hands, but over the years, China has started showing raison d’être. The OBOR is not an initiative to build and work together but a foxy way to fulfill Xi Jinping’s ambition to expand the Chinese Communist Empire.

Nothing Comes Free. Nothing. Not even good, especially not good.

                                 Lyndon B. Johnson

“The Chinese are thinking far into the long-term in Djibouti and Africa in general,” said David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia who was also the State Department’s desk officer for Djibouti as far back as the late 1960s. “Djibouti is one node in an economic chain that stretches across the northern rim of the Indian Ocean, from ports in Cambodia to Sri Lanka to Pakistan. They have a grand, strategic plan. We don’t.”

NEW DELHI must be WORRIED

New Delhi and Beijing aren’t on good terms. Tensions have been at an all level high since military clashes broke out on June 15, 2020. New Delhi must be concerned about China’s growing naval and military presence in the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific. India must accept that China has surrounded her.

The “String of Pearls” is a geopolitical theory that emphasizes the formation of a network of Chinese commercial and military bases across the Indian Ocean. This theory, though, tries to develop this positive consensus about infrastructure development, maritime cooperation, and peace but is principally aimed at surrounding the country with the longest coastline in the Indian Ocean, India. Starting from the Chinese mainland, moving through Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and concluding at Port Sudan.

The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are among the most strategically important in the world. According to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 percent of the world seaborne trade in oil transits through the Indian Ocean choke points, with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca, and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait. A significant concern of India in the Indian Ocean is energy. India is the fourth-largest economy in the world, which is almost 70 percent dependent on oil import, a significant part of which comes from the gulf region. China has directed its focus precisely on India’s Jugular that has slowly started bleeding.

It isn’t just the Indian Ocean. India’s concerns surround sovereignty as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is an eminent part of OBOR, runs through Indian sovereign territory of Kashmir. India needs to rapidly enhance its maritime capabilities, bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral exercises. India must emphasize its “Look East Policy” and engage in fruitful bilateral talks with countries in Africa, South-East Asia, and Central Asia. It’s only then India will be able to take on Chinese aggression.

Note: This article was published in Discordium Magazine on 3/10/2020 discordiummagazine.com

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