Djibouti’s privileged location between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, one of the most traversed sea routes of the Southern Hemisphere, has attracted the attention of global military powers like China and the US. This has led the small nation to become the state with most military bases in Africa; all of which are located in front of the narrow Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the sea-line division between Yemen and Djibouti.

While Djibouti is not often talked about, the strategic enclave is one of the world’s most varied centers in terms of foreign policy interests: being a necessary port for logistical support, a transport choke point in maritime traffic, a deployment center for counterterrorism, anti-piracy, humanitarian intervention, and regional military missions; while also giving access to routes that ensure flow of oil and other energetic resources.  

Djibouti’s officials are well aware of their importance as a strategic enclave, and its pivotal role in power projection within the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and the Gulf. The country has strongly utilized its key geopolitical location to profit from foreign powers, yet is strongly reliant on their funds for its economic maintenance. For this reason, Djibouti has engaged in a very pragmatic form of diplomacy, resulting in positive relations with almost all world powers, regardless of the ideological position or aims. Through these ties, Djibouti aspires to become a world renowned commercial, logistics, and financial services hub. While it has until now received its primary income from the US and its allies, China has taken a key interest in the country, and is seeking to become its favored patron.  

Djibouti views China as a growing economic patron with no conditions on local civil liberties. China has “professed willingness to ignore political conditionalities”, which is especially significant to the Djiboutian government considering its internal politics. President Guelleh in practicality inherited his position, and has imposed a strict control of the electorate and judiciary, fragmented the opposition, and accumulates revenues proceeding from FDI; which have not been utilized for any meaningful reforms, despite the estimates of extreme poverty in the country reaching up to 45% of its population. With actors like the United States receiving local pressure to condemn or act upon Djibouti’s lack of civil rights and condemn its human rights abuses, China is a welcome change for the governments political strongman; with this collaboration also serving as a statement of precedence to deter other foreign powers present in the country from exerting pressure on Djibouti’s governmental management. Adding to this, given the populations discontent with perceived aggressive and highly militarized western troops in the country, developing multisector relations and cooperation with China might even benefit the government in the eyes of its locals, given Xi Jinping’s aid investment in social development.

Another notable element when considering Djibouti’s growing collaboration with China is the perception the African nation has of China being a partner with complementary and mutually beneficial regional objectives. China has been readily investing in Africa’s infrastructure as a means of strengthening their market and logistics capacity in the continent, as an imperative policy objective within Xi Jinping’s cornerstone diplomatic initiative, the so called “One Belt, One Road”.    

For the Djiboutian government, this is evidential of common objectives in infrastructure development and urbanization, materialized in their partnerships in the construction of the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway and the expansion of the Djiboutian Free Trade Zone. Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zone Authority stated that these projects would not only ensure a gateway to Ethiopia, but also develop Djibouti’s connectivity to the Great Lakes region, South Sudan, and Somalia.

Djibouti also sees China’s presence within its borders as a platform to foster future cooperation with the Asian global power on political matters. President Guelleh’s government has developed an ambitious regional foreign policy; actively participating in the African Union and Arab League, notably contributing to the AU mission in Somalia, and maintaining key political and commercial relations with Ethiopia. This reflects the image the nation has of itself, and its position in the world, with President Guelleh stating that Djibouti is “African at heart, Arabist in culture, and universalist in thought”. The small state enclave also shelters Yemeni refugees and has an established pact with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition against the Houthi rebels. China may represent a key ally to further Djibouti’s political involvement in the region due to its influence in its development, and growing interest both in the Middle East and Africa as a whole.

China has replicated in Djibouti its successful strategy in other neighboring countries such as Sudan, which consists in assisting these nations with aid in exchange of expanding its influence in the region and having privileged access to their natural resources or geostrategic infrastructures. The absence of internal turmoil and the regional perception of Djibouti as a safe haven in perilous times, with conflicts raging in Yemen, Somalia or Eritrea, are the main reasons behind China’s choosing this country to expand its presence.

Djibouti aspires to become a world renowned commercial, logistics, and financial services hub- “the Singapore of East Africa”- as expressed in the states Vision Djibouti 2035 strategic goals. With a location that defines Djibouti as a strategic enclave in years to come, political stability strongholded in a consolidated governing class, and an intersectional identity granting it both African and Arabic ties; Djibouti may hold the potential to become a key political actor and prime strategic ally at both a regional and global level. With the committed Chinese presence within its borders, the potential for a key partnership between both countries now defines another crucial win for Xi Jinping’s foreign policy strategy.

 

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Image: President Xi Jinping by www.kremlin.ru. (via Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY 4.0.