China Comes to Djibouti

Why Washington Should be Worried

Djiboutian officers at the closing ceremony of the multinational field training exercise of the Eastern Africa Standby Force in Grand Bara, December 2009. U.S. Army / Master Sergeant Carlotta Holley

The tiny African nation of Djibouti is the unsung hero in the United States’ ongoing war against terror and piracy. A few security scares notwithstanding—the U.S. embassy was briefly closed earlier this month for unexplained reasons—the country is a rare oasis of stability in the Horn of Africa. Camp Lemonnier hosts U.S. Special Forces, fighter planes, and helicopters, and is a major base for drone operations in Yemen and Somalia. Small wonder that Washington recently renewed its lease on the base for ten years (with an option to extend for another ten), even though Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh nearly doubled the rent.


The United States’ investment in Djibouti, which amounts to more than $70 million per year including economic aid, is money well spent. Washington needs Djibouti—and Guelleh knows that all too well. France, Germany, and Japan have also handed over tens of millions of dollars to the country for the right to use its strategic real estate. And lately, China has gotten in on the act too—not only for economic reasons, but also driven by apparent security considerations. Money talks, especially in small and underdeveloped states run by authoritarian governments such as Djibouti—and soon Beijing, not Washington, may have the strongest voice. 

Beijing’s interest in Africa is immense. Bilateral trade between China and the continent already exceeds $200 billion, far above Africa’s commerce with the European Union or the United States. In addition, China has long sought to strengthen its ground-level influence in places it considers strategic chokepoints. As such, it now has economic, political, and military deals with a number of African states, including Algeria (which has significant oil and gas reserves and is near the Suez Canal), and other countries rich in energy resources, including Ethiopia and Nigeria. Djibouti recently joined this list, concluding a security and defense agreement with Beijing in early 2014. The Chinese official responsible for negotiating and, presumably, executing the deal was Defense Minister Chang Wanquan,

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