Strategic Presence in Djibouti: Africa’s Ports, China’s Desires

Status: 10/22/2022 8:29 pm

The Port of Hamburg alone is fueling ambitions in China – the country is particularly interested in central transport infrastructure in Africa. This raises concerns in Europe and America.

By Norbert Hahn, ARD Studio Nairobi

Djibouti is a small country with less than one million people. Economically, the country has little to offer: no industry, no agriculture – the soil is barren and sandy.

Nevertheless, Djibouti has attracted every major world power over the years: a coveted location on the “Bab al-Mandab,” a 27-kilometer-wide strait that eventually connects the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. This shipping route is vital to world trade.

Former colonial power France has its largest overseas base here, the US is well represented, and even Japan and Italy have long established themselves militarily behind high walls of sand and concrete.

Military port with 2000 soldiers

China has also been there since 2017, with a particularly impressive garrison: an area half a square kilometer in size, surrounded by a kind of Great Wall of China, with impressive battlements and room for 2,000 soldiers. The military port is said to have piers over 300 meters long, where even an aircraft carrier can berth.

China is not only the builder and financier of the military port, but also civil port facilities before it. “The French got there before the Chinese,” explains Gould Taksieh, a logistics expert at the University of Djibouti. “But the Chinese came with the money. That’s why all the new parts of the port under construction are financed by the Chinese. It’s a win-win situation.”

The port was completely captured by the Chinese

Meanwhile, the Chinese in Djibouti are not only port builders and investors, but also port operators. The contract was not extended for competition from the Gulf countries due to poor management.

It is not clear what equity concessions longtime President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who ruled with a firm hand, made to the Chinese. The fact is that the debt burden of the small state is growing rapidly – and the main creditor is a major power in the Far East.

China is also building a shopping center in Djibouti.

Image: Norbert Hahn

All this is not just about Djibouti. The largest port is practically the lifeline of Africa’s second largest country by population: Ethiopia. Of course, Chinese companies also built a new rail line from the port to the Ethiopian capital.

Ports are key to economic and, increasingly, military influence on the continent. According to estimates, trade between China and Africa is around 250 billion euros per year – and the trend is increasing.

The core of the “Silk Road”.

Africa is China’s largest regional component “Silk Road Initiative”, which should bring Europe, Asia and Africa closer together. We are talking about building infrastructure, which will surely bring economic success. 46 African countries have heeded China’s call and joined the project.

Ports are a key issue: According to the US Naval War College, Chinese banks and companies are now involved in financing, building or operating 61 ports in 30 African countries. The US fears that China may use some of the materials militarily. For example, port projects in the East African island group Comoros – a small country that could quickly run out of creditworthiness. And who are prone to greed.

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From port to military base?

Washington was particularly shocked a year ago by reports that the Chinese could expand an ongoing port project in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa. Washington fears China’s emergence in the Atlantic – symbolic at first.

China is doing what Great Britain, the United States and France once did: protecting its own economic interests, nationals and institutions, and protecting China’s politics. Unlike Russia, this is not done loudly by mercenaries, but in a way that does not disrupt business.

Beijing’s pace of economic and military growth is astonishing. and willingness to do so. “If Equatorial Guinea doesn’t allow a military base, some other countries might,” says Isaac Cardin of the Naval War College.

While this will not immediately change the “security dynamics” in Africa, it will change China’s long-term strategy and rivalry with the United States.

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