President Donald Trump has routinely called China out on its relentless attempts to take advantage of the United States. His administration should turn an eye to the unlikely contender for China’s latest gambit: the African nation of Djibouti, where erratic president Ismail Omar Guelleh recently claimed a landslide victory in legislative elections widely acknowledged to be a farce, and then forcibly seized control of the Doraleh port from the Emirati company, DP World, which had leased the harbor since 2006.
The United States has put up with Guelleh’s despotism for years because Djibouti has allowed the American military to use a former French Foreign Legion post as a launching pad for essential counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East. This benefit was mostly gutted when Djibouti blindsided American officials by allowing China to build a naval base only seven miles from the U.S. installation.
Guelleh’s government euphemistically described the hostile takeover of the Doraleh port as the “unilateral termination” of DP World’s contract and floated some flimsy excuses for commandeering the valuable harbor — from supposed irregularities in the original lease to allegations DP World paid bribes to get the concession. The Djibouti authorities didn’t appear to care that these same claims were summarily debunked in a recent United Kingdom arbitration case, in which Djibouti had been slapped down for submitting misleading and incorrect information.
At first glance, this all seems like par for the course for an African strongman. In power since 1999, Guelleh has a nasty habit of freezing the assets of political rivals, brutally cracking down on the free press, and violently attacking peaceful demonstrators. None of this thuggishness is out of the ordinary for African despots: Gabon’s president recently seized one of the water and electricity distribution units owned by French utility Veolia, and the now-unelected Joseph Kabila has his men gunning down protestors in the DRC.
Why, then, should we pay closer attention to a fight over a port in a country like Djibouti? Because, against the backdrop of its creeping influence in Africa, China got the rights to two-thirds of the Doraleh terminal in 2013 and later bankrolled a huge extension to the port. Local media is already reporting that Doraleh’s nationalization is just a prelude to a Chinese takeover. No surprise that the Chinese would covet it — much of China’s oil imports pass off Djibouti’s shores and China’s only overseas military base looms just down the road.
In typical duplicitous fashion, Chinese officials have tried their best to downplay this base’s importance. They’ve insisted that the installation is a small R&R facility for sailors, or just providing logistical support for nearby peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Satellite evidence and reports from locals, however, tell a different story.
Live-fire tests at the base in November marked China’s first ground-based exercises overseas. Djibouti’s foreign minister claimed in 2016 that the base would have a single berth for ships, no runway, and would likely only host 300 troops. Big surprise: the completed base is a “massive fortress” equipped to harbor attack helicopters, most of the vessels in the Chinese naval fleet, and as many as 10,000 troops. To really complete the inoffensive humanitarian image, the base is encircled by an extensive security perimeter with three layers of security and features a vast network of underground tunnels and bunkers.
China’s posturing hasn’t fooled savvy American observers. Peter Dutton, a strategic studies professor at the Naval War College, referred to the base’s opening as a “huge strategic development” cementing concerns that China is becoming an expansionary power with ever-increasing geopolitical ambitions. Dutton suspected that the Chinese will try and gradually increase their military presence at the site so as not to draw too much Western attention.
This may be hard, because there are certainly plenty of eyes on Doraleh. Thanks to Djibouti’s strategic positioning on the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the key shipping lane between Europe and Asia, the tiny country hosts seven countries’ militaries, including the United States presence at Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. base in Africa and critical to the War on Terror.
The thought of the Chinese navy a few miles away from highly sensitive U.S. military operations is disturbing enough, but who’s to say that the country’s greed will stop at the Doraleh Port? Beijing may next turn its eye to another attractive piece of real estate, Camp Lemonnier itself — and there’s every indication that Djibouti’s government may be inclined to give in to Chineses ambitions.
After all, China has a terrifying amount of financial leverage over the African nation, having given Djibouti’s government billions of dollars in loans adding up to nearly 60 percent of the country’s gross-domestic product. Guelleh owes his “great friend” Xi Jinping for his airports, his railways, a brand-new pipeline carrying urgently needed drinking water from Ethiopia, natural gas projects, Africa’s largest free trade zone, and much more.
Nor does Guelleh’s government seem to have any real loyalty towards the United States. The country already gave us an unfair shake when extending Camp Lemonnier’s lease in 2014, when our rent magically went from $38 million to $63 million a year. Instead of balking at this outrageous hike, of course, perpetually weak negotiator Obama threw in a promise to invest $1 billion in the country. President Trump, who’s taken a much harder line on China and other countries trying to take advantage of us, should keep an eye on Djibouti. Recent events suggest they just might try and pull a fast one on us.
Eliot Bakker is strategic consultant and American expat based in Brussels, where he works to defend the interests of a variety of American firms operating throughout Eurasia.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.