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Diplomatic Tensions In the Horn of Africa

This small and rugged, sun-drenched country in the Horn of Africa now hosts one of the world’s densest concentrations of foreign military bases. With a population of fewer than 1 million people, Djibouti has quickly emerged as a lodestone for global superpowers.

 “We do not have oil. Our oil is our strategic location,” Ahmed Arita Ali, a veteran Djibouti diplomat told the Telegraph last year, who has a vision of his nation evolving into the Singapore of Africa. France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom have established military bases in Djibouti.


In 2017, China built its first overseas military base on the coast of Djibouti. Addressing its resource deficit, China forged new relationships and supply lines to guarantee that it could fuel its flourishing economy. The decision comes after The Economist referred to Africa as the “hopeless continent in a 2000 article. The evaluation also regarded Africa as stricken by cycles of conflict; military and dictatorial one-party states; and beset by poverty and disease.


In 2013, China announced its vision for its development - the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), considered a major pillar of Chinese foreign policy. Panned by Western pundits as a form of debt-trap diplomacy, China established relationships to secure raw materials from countries throughout the global south.


The BRI works as a global infrastructure strategy to boost economic development by forging ties with more than 70 countries that charts its way from China throughout the global south and up to Europe.  


In the wake of criticism stemming from the West, the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies created a database of one thousand loans on Chinese lending in Africa, concluding that, “We have not seen any examples where we would say the Chinese deliberately entangled another country in debt, and then used that debt to extract unfair or strategic advantages of some kind in Africa, including ‘asset seizures.’”  


However, Western fears of debt-trap diplomacy are not wholly unfounded.


The China Harbor Engineering Company built the Hambanontota Port Development Project, in Sri Lanka. By 2015, overwhelmed by debt, the Sri Lankan government handed the port and 15,000 acres of land over to China.


Geostrategic analysts across the globe express alarm over Sino-African relations. A third of all global shipping passes through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait each year, along with a host of traffickers smuggling drugs, arms, and people back and forth from the Middle East.


 The Chinese military base was long in the making, professor of International Relations, Chris Alden, said in a recent podcast. Ever since China joined the anti-piracy initiative in 2008, Beijing was “unusually open” about its reasons to establish a military base in Djibouti, Alden said.


Owing to escalating Somali-based piracy in the African Horn, Djibouti serves as an important position for international counter-piracy operations.


“As China increases its investments and engagements internationally, it naturally feels a need to protect those things,” Clay Dube, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Southern California, said in a presentation to students at Claremont McKenna College.

Geographically, Djibouti sits on the routes to the Suez Canal and serves as a connection to the sea for Ethiopia. A $3.4 billion railway line running from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City marks a significant step in infrastructure development for the small coastal nation.

“China needs to get experience. Where do you go?”, says Dube, “Djibouti is ready to deliver. Not every place is ready to accommodate that sort of thing.”







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