- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Not content to build new military airstrips on a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is branching out even further, having just secured basing rights next door to Washington’s most important drone base in Africa.
The eastern African nation of Djibouti has long been a critical component of the Washington’s growing counterterrorism effort in Africa, which is using both armed drones and elite Special Operations personnel to battle the Islamic State as the militants expand their operations on the continent. But the country’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has interests of his own, and is taking advantage of the open-wallet policy that Beijing is using to expand its military footprint around the globe.
Under the deal, the Chinese navy will berth at a new, $590 million port facility being built with help from the China Merchants Holdings International, which is part of an estimated $12.4 billion in upgrades to the country’s shipping facilities that Chinese companies have played a role in funding. “They are the biggest investors in our country,” Guelleh recently said in an interview.
The deal has received a bit of attention in the west, but two members of Congress have certainly taken notice. Earlier this month they fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry demanding that Washington should reconsider its support of the Guelleh government. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) called out the “on-going erratic and anti-democratic behavior” of Guelleh, saying Washington should “urge President Guelleh to step down.”
Guelleh has long been criticized for cracking down on political dissent in the country, something that Washington has been willing to accept as long as the drones kept flying, and American interests in the region were secure. But having the Chinese navy as a next-door neighbor appears to have changed that calculus, at least for Rohrabacher and Smith, who have joined Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) in openly criticizing the U.S. ally. Last month, Hunter issued a statement blasting Guelleh for leading “a corrupt and repressive regime” and having an overly “cozy relationship with China.”
In their letter to Kerry and Carter, the congresspeople added that they were “worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counter-terrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region.”
The economy of Djibouti — a nation of fewer than 900,000 people — is heavily reliant on the cash pumped in by foreign governments to base their troops, who dock and resupply their ships there. In addition to the United States, France has a significant presence in the tiny nation, and Japan’s only overseas military base is located there. All three countries – along with China – have been taking part in military patrols off the coast of Somalia in order to stem the tide of piracy in the region, most of which originates in the poverty-stricken country.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said last month that the Chinese facility in Djibouti will support Chinese ships taking part in the anti-piracy mission, since China has “encountered real difficulties in replenishing soldiers and resupplying fuel and food, and found it really necessary to have nearby and efficient logistical support.”
Speaking with Reuters earlier this month, Guelleh said China has “the right to defend their interests, just like everybody else does.”
The Chinese move comes just as the Pentagon is preparing to spend about $200 million in northern Africa on a variety of new counterterrorism projects, which U.S. officials say will include more work at the facility in Djibouti. The drone operations being run out of the base there have become even more important with the Islamic State making significant inroads in Libya and across northern Africa and with the Pentagon having shut down its drone base in neighboring Ethiopia.
Photo Credit: GUILLAUME KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images