WASHINGTON • The top United States general for Africa has told lawmakers that the military could face “significant” consequences should China take a key port in Djibouti, as Beijing becomes increasingly muscular in Africa in an effort to expand its influence.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said he was in the process of rewriting US military strategy in the region with China in mind.
“China has been on the African continent for quite some time, but we, as a combatant command, have not dealt with it in terms of a strategic interest,” Gen Waldhauser said.
“We are taking baby steps in that regard.”
Last month, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012.
DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration.
During a US congressional hearing on Tuesday, which was dominated by concerns about China’s role in Africa, lawmakers said they had seen reports that Djibouti seized control of the port to give it to China as a gift.
China has already built a military base in Djibouti, just kilometres from a critical US military base.
“If this was an illegal seizure of that port, what is to say that government wouldn’t illegally terminate our lease before its term is up,” said Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican.
In a letter to US Defence Secretary James Mattis, Mr Byrne said he was concerned about China’s influence in Djibouti and the impact it would have on US military and intelligence assets.
Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.
Gen Waldhauser said that if China placed restrictions on the port’s use, it could affect resupplying the US base in Djibouti and the ability of US Navy ships to refuel there.
“If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant,” Gen Waldhauser said during the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing.
Djibouti hosts a US military base that is home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.
“There are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast… So Djibouti happens to be the first – there will be more,” Gen Waldhauser said.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he did not know anything about the port situation, but China’s cooperation with Africa was neither aimed at any third party nor aimed at excluding anyone.
Gen Waldhauser said that the US would be unable to match the scale of China’s investment throughout the continent, noting Beijing’s construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even football stadiums.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday the US will give more than US$533 million (S$701 million) in humanitarian aid for victims of conflicts and drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the West and Central African countries bordering Lake Chad.
But Mr Tillerson contrasted the US’ work on the African continent, which he said promoted “sustainable growth”, with that of China, which recently pledged US$124 billion for its Silk Road plan to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and other places.
Mr Tillerson said China’s investment in Africa “encouraged dependency”.
There are only two sea routes linking Europe with East Africa and much of Asia. Either you sail around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
A spat over the control of a port in tiny Djibouti illustrates just how geopolitically significant these trade routes can be.
Djibouti is one side of a narrow strait linking the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal and Mediterranean. On the opposite bank is Yemen, dysfunctional and at war with itself since 2014. If you want your ships to go through the Red Sea, you need Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Guelleh on your side.
Last week, Guelleh issued a decree (he does that a lot) cancelling a contract with Dubai firm DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, in effect nationalising it. DP World was granted a 30-year concession to run the port in 2006 but the Djiboutian government says this contract was obtained fraudulently, an accusation DP World denies.
The decree was published on February 23, while Djibouti was voting for a national assembly. Opposi-tion leaders are in exile, or staging a boycott over what they saw as electoral fraud, and the ruling party took 89% of the seats. In the presidential poll two years ago, Guelleh got 87%, despite running a country where two-thirds are jobless and United Nations figures suggest half the population lacks basic sanitation.
But that’s just the start. Djibouti is home to the only permanent United States military base in Africa, as well as military bases belonging to China, France, Italy and Japan.
China’s military presence in Djibouti has been accompanied by an aggressive investment drive and increasingly close relations between Guelleh’s administration and Beijing. It has been widely reported that the Djiboutian government intends to hand over the running of Doraleh Container Port to a Chinese company.
The port just happens to be right next to the newly built Chinese military base.
If Djibouti is anything to go by, in the battle for naval, trade and military supremacy on the Horn of Africa, the US and Europe are falling ever further behind.
DP World has protested against the nationalisation and threatened to take the matter to arbitration, probably the United Kingdom. The company runs more than 70 ports on all six continents. You’ll find them in Maputo, London and at the new terminals planned for South Africa. But their current fight will not raise much noise in Djibouti because the media, like so much else, is under state control. In fact, the office of the country’s only newspaper is located within the ministry of communication.
Since independence from France in 1977, there have been only two presidents: Guelleh, and his uncle, who died in 1999. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch rank it among the most oppressive countries in Africa, with torture, killings and little space for debate, charges the government firmly denies.
But where Zimbabwe or Venezuela might be shouted down, the major powers are silent because Guelleh is an opponent of groups such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabab.
But, for years, Guelleh has been drifting away from Paris and Washington and building closer bonds with China and, to a lesser degree, Russia.
If this was Lesotho or Madagascar, no one would care. But, in the world of trade, politics, counterterrorism, national ego and geostrategic power plays, Djibouti is a far more significant partner.
A key to resolving the crisis may lie further south, in neighbouring Somaliland, the autonomous region of Somalia that operates as its own country — even if no one else will recognise it as such. Somaliland is peaceful, democratic and stable, and boasts its own port, Berbera, which is also operated by DP World. Berbera is cheaper than Doraleh, a fact that lies at the heart of Djibouti’s spat with DP World.
By threatening to move their business, and their military might, down south to Somaliland, Western powers could regain some of their lost influence in Djibouti and perhaps even persuade Guelleh to implement some much-needed economic and political reforms — starting, perhaps, with him stepping down after four terms as president.