In August 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in the former French colony of Djibouti, a rugged country that lies on the Horn of Africa, at a junction between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and, thanks to the Suez Canal, Europe. Cash-strapped and small, Djibouti raises revenue by leasing land for foreign military bases. The French and Italians are long-standing tenants. The Germans, Spanish and British are there too, together with the Japanese. The Americans moved in after 9/11.
According to Bertil Lintner, the capital city, also called Djibouti, is coming to resemble Casablanca in the 1940s. It has a European quarter of whitewashed colonial-style houses, cafes, bars and restaurants, while the more chaotic African quarter, with its mosques and busy local markets, is ‘a Francophone place of intrigue where everybody seems to be spying on everybody else’.
As fears grow about the fracturing of liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, China’s far-flung military projection across the Indian Ocean is generating pressing questions in the West. Why is it in Djibouti? What does it want? And what do we do about it?
Many of us could be forgiven