Djibouti, crowded with military bases

A French warship ploughs through the sparkling waters between Africa and Arabia on a joint training drill with the US that highlights Djibouti's growing strategic role for the world's militaries. On the sun-blasted rocky shores of the tiny Horn of Africa nation, some 500 French troops march alongside 50 US Marines near the town of Arta, wearing full kit in the baking heat.

The training, designed to help the two allies work better together, also reflects growing international interest in the former French colony -- bordering Somalia, and just opposite Yemen.

Home to only around 800,000 people, Djibouti is now crowded with the military bases of several world powers.

Its port guards the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez Canal on one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

"This is certainly the reason why in addition to the French there are today many international forces wanting to establish a presence in Djibouti," said General Philippe Montocchio, the commander of French forces in the country.

"There are of course the Americans, the Japanese, the Italians, now the Chinese, and certainly in the near future, the Saudis." 

It emerged four months ago that China has signed an agreement with Djibouti for the installation by the end of 2017 of a "naval logistics" base to accommodate up to 10,000 soldiers and serve to secure Beijing's considerable and growing interests in the wider region.

China's first overseas military base

The hub will constitute China's first permanent overseas military deployment.

Djibouti is already home to Camp Lemonnier, the United States' only permanent base in Africa.

It is used for covert, anti-terror and other operations in Yemen, as well as the US fight against the Islamist Shebab in Somalia and against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Washington pays some $60 million (53 million euros) a year to Djibouti for the base.

US Major Paul L. Croom, a liason officer between the French and US militaries, said the joint drills in Djibouti "just makes sense" as the allies share key security interests in the region, including combating the jihadist threat in Africa.

"Our operability -- between the French military and US military -- is as important as it's ever been right now, and is only gaining in importance," Croom said. 

"Everybody knows that a lot of that threat emanates from areas in which the United States and France have mutual interests."

European and other international navies use Djibouti's port as a base in the fight against piracy from neighbouring Somalia. These are important -- and sometimes dangerous -- waters. 

With international navies at sea, Somali pirate attacks have dropped off: 176 attacks were recorded in 2011, and none in 2015, according to the EU naval force.

And just 30 kilometres (20 miles) across the Gulf of Aden lies war-torn Yemen, devastated by a civil war that has pitched Shiite Huthi rebels -- backed by Iran -- against an internationally recognised government backed by Saudi-led air strikes. 

Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, one of the jihadist network's most dangerous franchises, as well as Islamic State forces, have also joined the battle for power in Yemen.

"Djibouti is located exactly at the epicentre of all this jihadist movement in the Horn of Africa and the southern part of the Middle East," Montocchio said.

China, beyond its new naval base, is bankrolling major infrastructure projects in Djibouti, including transport links for key markets in neighbouring landlocked Ethiopia.

"Everybody was surprised: why China? For Djibouti, there's no question," said Djibouti's Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf.

"China's presence, naval or military, is part of the same logic of countries that have the ability to contribute to peace and security in a region which is very troubled."

But China's entry into this "Great Game" ​is a risky bet for Djibouti -- it may well unsettle relations with traditional allies, especially the United States.


Tiny Djibouti thinks big

The tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, which votes Friday in presidential elections, is hitching its wagon to the star of neighbouring Ethiopia with a series of cross-border projects funded mainly by China, the new power-broker in the region.

Djibouti's President Ismael Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999, is seeking a fourth term as head of the former French colony that sits at the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The vote, which the opposition has already branded a sham, will test support for a series of infrastructure projects that aim to increase the already outsized influence of the country of around 800,000 people, home to America's biggest -- and only permanent -- military base in Africa.

Djibouti has been in the lucrative position of offering landlocked Ethiopia its only access to the sea since Ethiopia went to war with Eritrea next door in 1998.

During the two-year conflict, Addis Ababa relied on Djibouti's main port to import weapons.

Since then Ethiopia's economy has grown exponentially, and with it the tide of imports flowing through Djibouti to the country of 97 million people, which accounts for 86 percent of all goods transiting through Djiboutian ports.

Not content to rely on passing trade and playing host to the military bases of several world powers, Djibouti is now looking to play a bigger role in east Africa, in tandem with fast-growing Ethiopia.

"Even if the country has a very good strategic location, small economies like ours need to be integrated into regional development efforts," Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf told.

A 'model' for east Africa

In 2011, Djibouti was hooked up to Ethiopia's electricity grid. Two further interconnectors are planned, one of which could transport Ethiopian power across the Red Sea to Yemen.

A 752-kilometre railway line linking the city of Djibouti to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa is scheduled to open soon, with another line for exporting potassium from the northern Ethiopian city of Mekele through the Djiboutian port of Tadjourah set to soon follow.

In the past year the neighbours have also announced two major energy projects.

A multi-billion-dollar pipeline will transport natural gas from Ethiopia to a liquefaction plant and export terminal at Damerjog in Djibouti, while in the other direction, a planned 550-kilometre pipeline will carry diesel, gasoline and jet fuel from Djibouti's ports to central Ethiopia.

Completing the list of cross-border projects is a water pipeline to channel drinking water from Ethiopia to Djibouti, which like Ethiopia is prone to droughts.

"Our relationship is gaining momentum", said Tewolde Mulugeta, spokesman for the Ethiopian foreign ministry, who sees the deepening ties between the two countries as "a model" for the region.

It is a view shared in Djibouti. 

"The main thing is that the development benefits not only the two countries but also other countries in the region," Energy Minister Ali Yacoub Mahamoud told AFP.

"That is why we must combine our resources, our efforts and our ideas".

Chinese money

The two countries see themselves as the engine of closer cooperation within the regional IGAD grouping, which also includes Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

Ethiopia and Djibouti's special relationship has been welcomed by China, a major investor in the region.

Most of Djibouti's 14 major infrastructure projects, which have been valued at a total 14.4 billion dollars, are being funded by Chinese banks, including the railway line that will halve transit times from Djibouti to Addis Ababa.

"These are very big investments," Djibouti's foreign minister said, explaining that China was "the only partner that accompanied us along this path."

China is also funding the pipeline that will transport natural gas to the port in Djibouti for export to the Asian powerhouse, and recently signed an accord with the Red Sea state on the construction of a free trade zone around 50 kilometres from Djibouti city.

Economists warn that Djibouti is becoming too reliant on Chinese credit. The country's public debt burden is forecast to rise from 60 per cent in 2015 to around 80 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.

"It's a dilemma," admits Youssouf, the foreign minister. "The more indebted we are, the more we depend on our creditor. But what alternative is there? Countries can only develop if they have infrastructure."