Diary

China’s creeping influence in Djibouti

Promoted from the diaries by Leon. . . 

“We Chinese love peace” beamed Xi Jinping, aka ‘Big Daddy’ Xi, as 12,000 troops, tanks and nuclear missiles were paraded at the opening of China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Second World War. Despite ‘Big Daddy’ Xi’s attempt to paint 21st century China as a committed leader of peaceful development that would “never seek hegemony or expansion”, illustrating his actions by cutting 300,000 troops from the country’s 2.3 million-strong army, Beijing’s controversial muscle flexing in the South China Sea and investments in Africa send a chillingly different signal.

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping by U.S. Embassy The Hague @flickr

For starters, Xi Jinping’s announcement of army cuts was counteracted by the military parade’s demonstration of China’s new ‘carrier-killer’ missile, the DF-21D, and the DF-26, an intermediate-rage ballistic missile with a range of 3,000km to 4,000km. Both these developments seriously threaten US maritime power, considering that there are currently no defensive countermeasures for the DF-21D while the longer range DF-26 is capable of attacking medium-sized vessels, effectively jeopardizing the positions of US aircraft carriers and their destroyers. As security and defense specialists watched the spectacle with alarm, it was discovered that all the missiles present at the parade are already in the People Liberation Army’s service, meaning that China could effectively start deploying the missiles and tip the naval balance of power in Asia and beyond against the US.

 

In light of these new shows of force, nowhere is China’s military expansion more evident than in Djibouti, a small but strategic nation coined “the hub for [American] intelligence operations in the Horn and East Africa” and home to the only US military base on the continent, Camp Lemmonier. Launching drone attacks against neighboring Somalia’s Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in Yemen, the US base has been a vital asset in US counterterrorism operations in the region, so much so that the Obama administration so kindly agreed to pay the extortionate sum of $63 million a year for a new 20 year lease for the military base, up from the previous arrangement of roughly $30 million. But it seems the US is not the only one who values Djibouti’s strategic position, as China has also recently been currying favor with the country’s strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh in an attempt to score some favors for its own military ambitions in the region.

 

And what better way to win over an aging autocrat than to indulge his thirst for power? Guelleh, who has been in power for 16 years, changing the Constitution in 2010 to allow him to run for a third term, has consistently undermined opposition in the country, cracked down on the freedom of press, and stifled political demonstrations. In response to increased criticism from Congress over his autocratic leadership, Guelleh has negotiated a new strategic alliance with China, one that includes handing over a $185 million stake in Djibouti’s strategic port, where Beijing plans to spend $400 million developing the ports facilities. Already considered a serious threat to US activities in the region, China has also been negotiating the establishment of a military base in Obock, a small port city with an airport and naval pier, with Guelleh claiming that while negotiations were still ongoing, “Beijing’s presence would be welcome”.

 

While this show of China’s military intentions should have Obama’s posse seriously concerned, little action has been taken to put either parties in their place. In a more audacious attempt to undermine US influence in the region, reports emerged that Djibouti had “reportedly ordered the US to vacate the Obock military base” to make room for China’s People Liberation Army (PLA). The US Army, head bowed, obeyed.

 

Rather than showing China who’s boss, and putting pressure on President Guelleh to change his stance, Obama has chickened out and accepted the inglorious distinction of being played by a lowly African kleptocrat. A responsible political leader would have spared no efforts to ensure that China, with Guelleh in its pocket, does not get the opportunity to develop a military base in the country, one where missiles “capable of nuclear and conventional strike[s]” and acting as a threat to vital trade routes could be deployed. And yet, our military-hating President did just that.

 

The big showdown, however, will take place when Mr. Xi visits the White House later in September. State visits of this magnitude are usually reserved for our closest allies; by rolling out the red carpet, our President is doing nothing less than paying homage to our fiercest competitor in what is essentially a disturbing case of cognitive dissonance. Presidential hopeful Scott Walker, rightly called out Obama on his open arms attitude, pointing out that China “does not respect us [and] Xi Jinping doesn’t deserve the honor of a state visit”.

 

We can only pray, for the sake of this country, that the President will reverse course and use this opportunity to show the Chinese leader that the US can not be bullied out of its strategic positions. All Obama needs to do is to put his cards on the table before it’s too late. Washington accounts for much of Djibouti’s budget through the millions paid out in rents every year, a simple fact that should be used to bring Guelleh back in line. Even if China is willing to offer all sorts of gifts to have the Djiboutian strongman in its pocket, falling out of the good graces of the US and its allies as a result of that relationship would be a strategic mistake of epic proportions, one that ‘Big Daddy Xi’ should be loth to make if he were made aware of the risks.

 

Without clear and concise action now, when Obama leaves the White House in 2016, the rest of us will have much bigger problems on our plate – both in terms of an increasingly autocratic African leader gone rogue and a militarily powerful China that is unwilling to stick to so called promises of peaceful hegemony.