Djibouti welcomes China to build a military base
Published 2013-03-11 on the Global Times’ Chinese-language website
By Global Times Special Correspondents to Djibouti Jiang Anquan and Zhang Jianbo
Looking out the window as the plane descends into Djibouti International Airport you can see military planes from Western countries at a short distance away. Some are parked while some are preparing to take off or have just landed. This was the first time that we, the Global Times’ special correspondents to Djibouti, had heard the roar of fighter planes and the sound irritated our ears.
We came face-to-face with some German soldiers as soon as we arrived at the Sheraton Hotel where we were to stay. We later also saw some of Japan’s self-defense forces.
Vendors on the streets and taxi drivers yelled out “Ni hao,” “Sayonara” and “Hwan-yeong” in succession as soon as they saw us or other Asians. A local driver Abbas told us that this was part of Djibouti’s policy of balanced diplomacy — everyone who visits is treated as a guest and care is taken not to offend anyone.
Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa, and is a country with an area of only 23,000 square kilometers and a population of about 820,000 — about the same as the average Chinese county. Besides being small, Djibouti is also poor and is one of the least developed countries in the world. It is lacking in natural resources and its agricultural industries are backward. Deserts and volcanoes take up 90 percent of Djibouti’s total surface area. In addition, there are less than 4000 farmers in the country and it is not self-sufficient in grain production.
As soon as you travel a short distance away from Djibouti’s capital city, all you see is a vast gravel desert with volcanic rocks scattered across it. No noticeable plants are visible besides thorn-filled acacia trees. Therefore, even the small number of Djiboutians who want to chew khat (a plant similar to marijuana that has a stimulant effect) have to import it from Ethiopia.
Fortunately for Djibouti, even though it is small and poor, it occupies a strategically important position. Djibouti is located in a key area on the west coast of the Gulf of Aden, with its northern part facing the Mandab Strait where the Red Sea enters the Indian Ocean. Djibouti is also a good natural harbor with calm and deep water. Most importantly, unlike Somali, Djibouti has a secure and stable government that has had only two presidents since it gained independence from France in 1977. The Somali and the Afar, the two largest ethnic groups in Djibouti, together make up almost 90 percent of the country’s population, and they get along in harmony.
Many countries have been attracted to build military bases in Djibouti because of its strategically important position and its stable and secure government. First was France, its former colonizer. France and Djibouti have signed a defense agreement and France continues to operate several military bases in the country. A Djiboutian scholar told us that France recognizes the importance of its bases in Djibouti now more than ever following its deployment of troops to Mali, and is now preparing to increase its troops and investment in Djibouti.
Second was America. The US set its eyes on Djibouti as part of its War on Terror following the events of 9-11, and established the only US military base in Africa there. When the US was in the process of setting up its Africa Command [which is now in Germany], Djibouti actively invited the US to consider setting up the headquarters of its Command in Djibouti. The military base in Djibouti not only allowed the US to have a foothold in East Africa and the hinterlands of Africa, but also played an important role in the US attack on Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants and the US’ toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. Several years ago, Japan also established its first overseas naval military base in Djibouti using the pretext of trying to curb the increasingly rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Besides hosting the military bases of these countries, Djibouti is also important as a maintenance and resupply base for many countries’ escort ships. The berths in the country’s harbor are full of ships,and arrangements for ships that want to dock in them must be made well in advance. In the past four years, the ships in China’s escort fleet have docked in Djibouti more than 50 times.
The port of Djibouti is the country’s economic lifeline, and the fees that it collects from military bases are another important source of income. Djiboutian scholars revealed to the Global Times that France pays about 30 million euros (~$39.06 million) per year in fees for the right to maintain military bases in the country, while the US pays $30 million and Japan pays a sum that is no less than what is paid by France and the US. These funds can accomplish a lot in a country that only has a population of 820,000. As a result, Djibouti pursues a policy of balanced diplomacy in which “everyone who visits is treated as a guest and care is taken not to offend anyone.”
While interviewing the commander of the Djibouti navy Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher, we mentioned that in the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He had sailed to the West [of China] and came to Africa and to Djibouti with friendly intentions and no intentions of invading it. When he heard this, Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher first seemed deep in thought, perhaps thinking that we were casting aspersions on Western countries because of their historical invasion of Djibouti. He then suddenly said, “The US and France are also guests of Djibouti. They have their own role to play and we cooperate well.”
On the day before we visited the Colonel, Japan and Djibouti signed an agreement in which Japan donated two patrol boats to Djibouti. However, when we asked the Colonel about the collaboration between the Djiboutian navy and foreign navies, he did not mention this.
Djibouti also has close relations with China. In our interviews with Djiboutians, many of them mentioned that the former president of Djibouti Hassan Gouled Aptidon gave property in the country to China before he retired. Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher told us that he knew that the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress Work Report mentioned China’s goal to become a maritime power and said that he welcomes China to build its own base in Djibouti.
A Chinese person in Djibouti sighed and said to us: “The ability of a small country like Djibouti to walk the tightrope of balancing the interests of the world’s major powers while achieving its own interests and developing deserves recognition.”
2013-03-11 07:28 环球时报
【环球时报赴吉布提特派记者 蒋安全 张建波】飞机降落在吉布提国际机场，目光转向窗外，便可看到不远处西方国家军队的飞机，有停着的，也有正准备起飞或刚降落的。专门赴吉采访的《环球时报》记者第一次如此近距离听到战斗机起飞时的轰鸣，耳朵颇有点受刺激。记者来到下榻的喜来登酒店，迎面便碰到一群德国士兵。后来还见到一些来自日本的自卫队员。街头的商贩或出租车司机见到东方面孔的人，会用中文“你好”、日语“再见”、韩语“你来啦”一起乱叫一通。当地司机阿巴斯告诉记者，这就是吉布提，来的都是客，谁也不得罪，因为吉奉行平衡外交。