A recent report of the US Department of Defence says that China may be getting ready to deploy aircraft, carriers and submarines at its African base in Djibouti. This is an unpleasant reminder of China’s military challenge to India, not only along the disputed border, but also in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
China established its military base in Djibouti as recently as 2017. This was after the US, France and Japan had already gained a military foothold in the country. But China emerged as a strong competitor to all of them. That only reveals the extent to which it threatens India, a relatively weaker rival, in the IOR.
China is already a tough military contestant even in India’s immediate South Asian neighbourhood. In the wider Indian Ocean, from Africa’s east coast to Southeast Asia, China has a stronger naval and economic presence. And its ambition is to become a world power, dislodging the US, by 2049.
China is certainly on good terms with most littoral states and islands in the IOR, at the very least because they have joined its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and admire the rapid progress which has established it as the world’s second-largest, $17-trillion economy. It will take India’s $3-trillion economy time to catch up.
Djibouti is a tiny African country with an area of only 23,000 sq km and a population of just over one million. But its strategic position has made it a significant security player in the international arena. It is located at the edge of the crucial Bab al-Mandab (Gate of Tears in Arabic) Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. Twenty per cent of global exports pass through the strait annually. Additionally, 40 per cent of China’s oil imports and daily trade with the EU, which amounts to nearly $2 billion, are through the Gulf of Aden-Suez Canal route.
China has been quick to gauge the strategic potential of Djibouti. Despite its old trade ties in silk, spices, gold and ivory, India has not been able to take advantage of it. After Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977, China and Djibouti established diplomatic ties in 1979. It took India more than three decades to have a functioning embassy in Djibouti.
In 2018 and 2019, Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh visited India to participate in conferences of the International Solar Alliance. Bilateral trade between India and Djibouti stood at $367.23 million in 2020-21, out of which India’s exports totalled $347.06 million and imports were to the tune of $20.16 million. In 2020, the China-Djibouti trade amounted to more than $3 billion.
The Djibouti base reflects China’s ability to make long-term strategic plans. For many years, civil conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Yemen intensified threats to free shipping. China supported UN peacekeeping in strife-riven African countries and also provided security to Chinese ships. The intended result of these policies was to build China’s position as a major economic and security partner for countries located in the Horn of Africa.
China has expanded relations with Djibouti primarily through growing economic ties under the BRI framework. It has developed the port of Djibouti, where it has built a free-trade zone. This is likely to be Africa’s largest such zone, and it will be jointly run by the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority and China’s state-owned Merchants Holdings Company.
China also started constructing a railway connecting Ethiopia to Djibouti in 2011 — even before the inauguration of the BRI two years later. The railway was completed in 2016. Moreover, China has built a pipeline to supply water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. To crown it all, Beijing is also funding a pipeline to send natural gas to Djibouti for export to China!
Chinese economic investments in the Indo-Pacific appear to follow a pattern. Economic investment usually comes first; it is followed by building strategically important ports. Djibouti has been developed as a deep-water port capable of loading heavy ships for trading and military purposes. China’s investment in India’s neighbouring countries has followed an analogous pattern: for instance, the deep-water ports, including Gwadar in Pakistan and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, have commercial and strategic uses.
Meanwhile, the China Construction Bank has funded the laying of an undersea fibre optic cable by Huawei Marine Networks. This cable will connect Djibouti with Pakistan, as part of a brand-new Asia-Africa-Europe cable. So, Europe will benefit from China’s investments in Djibouti and Pakistan.
China’s strategy of expanding investment in Djibouti also promotes the government’s ‘Vision Djibouti 2035’, which aims to transform the country into a commercial trade hub of Africa. On the whole, what started as China’s economic engagement in Djibouti led to the establishment of its first overseas military base, where it could accommodate its aircraft carriers and submarines.
China does not shy away from the tussle with India for geoeconomic influence in the IOR, even as the Global Times has criticised western media for “always hyping up South Asia as a ‘battleground’, and for encouraging competition and rivalry between China and India”. It goes on to say that as the US woos India, “some of India’s political elites mistakenly believe they can benefit from a China-US feud, and they are increasingly inclined to view the relationship with China from the perspective of competition and rivalry”.
China’s engagement in Djibouti points to the slowness of India’s efforts to strengthen ties with that country and other nations in the IOR. India must realise the scale of what China is up to in the IOR, widen its strategic horizons and strengthen its intertwined educational, economic, technological and military bases.
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