Djibouti may be located thousands of miles away from both the United States and China, but it is becoming an increasingly salient focal point in U.S.-China relations. Before he was dismissed, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stopped by this tiny Horn of Africa country during his first (and last) official trip to Africa in March. His objective was to reiterate America’s commitment to Djibouti, which is home to the only U.S. military base in Africa. His visit also spoke to the U.S. desire to remain relevant in Africa, where China’s presence is rapidly expanding. Starting with Djibouti, China is testing an emerging strategy of using its economic influence to advance its security interests.
I was in Djibouti almost a year ago when the country finished building the Doraleh Multipurpose Port. At the open-air ceremony celebrating the port’s completion last May, foreign dignitaries and local officials alike donned suits despite the sweltering heat. A red carpet was rolled out from Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s air-conditioned tent to the podium, where he and Chinese representatives took turns commending Djibouti and its partner, the state-owned China Merchants Group (CMG), on this joint achievement. Lines of Djiboutian construction workers flanked the podium under the glare of the morning sun; crowds of Chinese engineers and staff cheered from nearby tents.
Two months after the Doraleh Multipurpose Port was inaugurated, the Chinese and Djiboutians convened again to celebrate the completion of another construction masterpiece: China’s first overseas military base. Located just a few minutes’ drive away from the commercial port at Doraleh, the Chinese military facility, which was built for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is reported to have exclusive use of at least one of the port’s berths. From this new vantage point, the PLAN is able to overlook one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world: the Gulf of Aden, specifically the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which an estimated 12.5 to 20 percent of global trade passes every year. (The narrowest part of Bab-el-Mandeb is only 18-miles wide.) The proximity between port and base reflects the integration of Chinese commercial and military interests as part of a strategy to project power abroad, even while Beijing maintains the guise of noninterference.