Concern over a possible full Chinese acquisition of the strategic port of Djibouti, in East Africa, was raised in Washington, DC, this past week, during discussions before the United States (US) House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. One US military general even warned that the US could face "significant" consequences should China gain full ownership of the crucially strategic port on the Horn of Africa.
But why, and why now would the US Congress become concerned over yet another Chinese step to widen its global influence? Consideration of the following is necessary:
Djibouti - with a population of less than one-million, is a poor East African country of many nomadic pasturers, just shy of 9,000 square miles ( 23,200 square kilometers), sitting at the confluence of East Africa, the Gulf States and beyond, according to the CIA World Factbook. It sits at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, south of Eritrea, east of Ethiopia and north-northwest of Somalia. Its location makes it a strategic sea-transit hub for commercial, naval and military operations to East Africa and the surrounding Arab states along with providing easy navigation north-northwestward up to the Suez Canal. It is a primary access port for American, French, Italian and Japanese bases in Djibouti, CNN reported earlier today.
China is heavily invested in Djibouti as it is throughout an enlarging swath of the developing world. But before addressing the almost comical concern raised over China's possible pending ownership of the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) - the Port of Djibouti, which lies immediately adjacent to China's sole overseas military base, a brief basic recent history of Djibouti is necessary because it hints at important chances of influence Washington has missed since the end of the Cold War, but upon which China has capitalized.
As is the case in most developing countries, Djibouti too, had a territorial master, France. In 1977, the nation gained independence and an authoritarian one-party state emerged and lasted until 1999, when multi-party elections were held for the first time amid a civil war that ended in 2001. The president of the Republic of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh, was handpicked by his uncle, in 1999, to assume the rule of the country via multi-party elections. He remains president today after changing the constitution so that he could run for a third-term in 2011 and a fourth-term in 2016.
China is Africa's largest trading partner. In 2015, China disclosed that it would spend $60 billion on infrastructure projects on the continent, The Atlantic reported back on July 12, 2017. So when Chinese troops moved onto a new base in Djibouti last year, China did not hide its widening influence whether or not the US slept at the time. China has provided more than $1.4 billion, the equivalent of 75 percent of Djibouti's GDP, to infrastructure funding in the country.
In Late February, CNN reported, the Djibouti government terminated a contract with Dubai-based port operator, DP World, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal on the grounds it was "contrary to the fundamental interests of the nation." The port is 23.5 percent owned by China's state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings.
Last week's Congressional concern about China gaining full ownership of the container terminal in Djibouti seems comical since the likelihood has been in clear sight. China never hid from view its intended influence over the developing world, which the US has seemingly ignored ever since the end of the cold war.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser told lawmakers of "significant" consequences to US interest should China get full control of the port that could see restrictions on its use and a cut off of access to a key US re-supply route with impacts on naval re-fueling. Lawmakers claimed Djibouti was giving the port to China as a "gift".
Whatever it is, the affair of the port of Djibouti spells a wider reality of the ambition and fruit of China's overt acts to influence developing nations which is unmatched by the US deepening isolation and its neglect of strategically vital areas in recent years.