China has a military presence in Djibouti, a presence which many believe is a huge threat to India.
London: With an area of about one tenth of Gujarat, Djibouti packs a big geopolitical punch for a small country. Occupying a strategically important maritime position at the Red Sea corridor across from Yemen, in recent years Djibouti has attracted the attention of military superpowers wishing to set up bases in the region. Especially China.
For Beijing, the simple reason is that Djibouti has assumed a pivotal role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It was back in 2017 that China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, portraying its presence at the time as part of the international effort to combat piracy and protect global trade passing through the Suez Canal. Beijing is acutely sensitive abroad to the word “military”, so it officially designated its Red Sea base as a “logistics facility”. On the eve of opening in December 2017, the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, reported that “The base will be conducive to overseas tasks—including evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways”. So there we have it—a non-hostile, humanitarian logistic port.
Except that less than five years later, China completed a pier at its new naval base large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, potentially allowing its navy to project power outside the traditional operating area of East and South China Seas. This new facility is also capable of handling China’s new Type 075 amphibious assault ship, of which China has currently 10, with 2 under construction. They can carry 30 helicopters and 1,000 marines and are being positioned at the core of China’s land warfare capabilities. The Type 075s have large decks that, in addition to operating helicopters, can also accommodate aircraft with short-takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities, like the American F-35B, thus enabling them to play a role similar to aircraft carriers.
Djibouti has become a key part of China’s move into Africa, a continent which is the largest regional component of the $1 trillion BRI to reconfigure the architecture of global commerce. Some 46 African nations have signed into the BRI, representing over 1 billion people, covering about 20% of the earth’s landmass. Since 2000 there has been an influx of more than 1 million Chinese citizens who have made Africa their permanent home, a common feature of BRI. At the same time, Beijing has integrated a military and security component into its economic partnerships with African states, making China’s defence presence in Africa part of the fabric of the continent’s development.
China is not the only country to have a military presence in Djibouti, a presence which many believe is a huge threat to India. After all, this small country on the Horn of Africa with a population of less than a million, is the top of military strategists’ lists when it comes to geopolitics. Three other major Indo-Pacific powers, the United States, France, and Japan have maintained military bases in Djibouti for several years. Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, and Saudi Arabia also host military installations, generating at least $300 million annually for the state. Russia tried recently to establish military facilities there as well, but was turned down by the Djibouti government under pressure from the US. Instead, Moscow is currently attempting to set up a naval base at Port Sudan further up the coast, which would give Moscow some of the logistical capability and power projection capacity it desires in the region. Russia has long eyed Djibouti’s neighbour, Sudan, as a stake in the global power play over this strategic waterway.
While there was some speculation that India could partner Russia in Sudan in order to strengthen its strategic significance in the Horn of Africa, it now appears that New Delhi has decided to build its military base further south on Agalega Island, part of the island nation of Mauritius. More than a year ago, Al Jazeera reported that India had invested $250 million in developing an airfield, port, and communications hub on this remote island. While these facilities will enable India to keep an eye on this part of the ocean and will constitute a key staging post in the Indian maritime domain, many analysts believe that it has been a mistake for New Delhi not to have built military facilities further north. In fact, the Times of India, when commenting on China’s new platform for power projection and influence provided by its facility in Djibouti, said last December that “India and its western allies should be worried”.
And there’s another reason for India to be worried about not having a base in Djibouti—undersea cables. Invisible to users, there is a global network of 475 underwater cables carrying more than 90% of internet data around the world. These cables require a “landing point”, which provides a location for both powering the cable and also for providing interconnections to domestic and international users. Djibouti has become a major African player in the business of undersea cables and last year saw the landing of Djibouti’s ninth cable, a 45,000-kilometre fibre optic cable owned by Meta. Named 2Africa, it is the longest in the world and will connect Africa, Asia and Europe—altogether 33 countries across 46 landing points. Next year, the new Raman Submarine Cable System will be ready for service, connecting India to Oman, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Raman cable, which will have a landing in Djibouti, is named after Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the world-famous Indian physicist who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics. More cables are due in the coming years, all landing in Djibouti city, which every second will carry a huge amount of India’s international traffic, from video calls to banking transactions. The explosive growth of cloud computing will only increase the volume and sensitivity of the data crossing these cables, so their protection will be crucial. The problem is that over the past five years, this “Red Sea” route for undersea cables has become one of the world’s largest internet chokepoints and, arguably, the most vulnerable place on earth for the internet.
Countries having a military presence in Djibouti will not only be in a great position to protect these vital assets, but will also be able to keep a close eye on China’s only current military base abroad. Unfortunately, India will not be there. In her article in The Tribune last week, Professor Anita Inder Singh argues that “India has been slow to gauge Djibouti’s strategic value”. She may be right.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.