When unveiling the Trump administration’s new Africa policy on Thursday, national security adviser John Bolton made a point to speak about a single container port in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti. Officials say the Doraleh Container Terminal is critical for resupplying the only permanent U.S. base in Africa, and Bolton said China could take control of this port.
While Djibouti is slightly smaller than New Jersey and has a population of under 1 million, its strategic location gives it an outsized influence. At the southern end of the Red Sea, Djibouti is on the shipping route between Asia and the Suez Canal. Every day an estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil transit the Bab el-Mandab straight adjacent to Djibouti.
Djibouti’s proximity to terrorist havens in Yemen and Somalia also made it an ideal location for the U.S. military. Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base, became an expeditionary base for counterterrorism operations after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The base, which shares a runway with Djibouti’s only international airport, has grown significantly over the years.
The base houses thousands of military personnel to support operations in the region. The military reports killing approximately 254 al-Shabab militants through 32 airstrikes in Somalia this year so far. That is a significant increase over the approximately 150 Somali militants reportedly killed in the previous year. Djibouti is also adjacent to Yemen, where the U.S. has been supporting Saudi-led efforts against Houthi militants.
In October, the military announced $240 million worth of contracts for expansion of facilities that will include infrastructure to support the Air Force’s largest cargo jets. This is just part of the $1.4 billion plan for the base that the Pentagon announced in 2012. The Obama administration entered a 30-year lease for Camp Lemonnier in 2014 at a cost of $63 million per year.
While the United States and other countries have military interests in Djibouti, China has made major investments into the country’s infrastructure. This could help Djibouti be a node in China’s massive “One Belt, One Road” project to connect markets across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Djibouti’s external debt has increased significantly since 2014 and much of this is believed to be infrastructure loans from China. In 2017, China established a military base next to the Doraleh Multipurpose Port, another shipping terminal in Djibouti that it funded.
While there have been other concerns with China in Djibouti, such as accusations that China used lasers against American pilots in Djibouti, American officials have recently expressed concern over a port that was once operated by an external company but has been taken over by the Djibouti government.
The Doraleh Container Terminal opened in 2008 as a joint venture between DP World, an Emirati company, and the Djiboutian government. In February, the government canceled the agreement with DP World and in September it nationalized the port.