The head of America's Africa Command, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, has expressed concern over China's growing military presence in Djibouti.
He said that China's claim that it was building logistical facilities in Djibouti was not correct because Beijing was actually creating a full-fledged military base that would sit alongside U.S. and French bases in the strategic Indian Ocean country.
It would be the first time that NATO allies — France and the U.S. — would have to contend with a military base under the command of a competing nation in the same location.
"We've never had a base of, let's just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be," Waldhauser said. "So there's a lot of learning going on, a lot of growing going on."
"Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns, and I think that our base there is significant to us because it's not only AFRICOM that utilizes [it]," he told Breaking Defense.
An MV-22 Osprey prepares to lower its ramp to debark Marines during a noncombatant evacuation training operation in Djibouti, Africa, Jan. 5, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brandon Maldonado)
In January 2016, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told journalists in Beijing that the facilities were to back up China's escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and would not lead to a military base.
He explained: "Vessels have been sent by China to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast for escort missions in recent years. In fulfilling escort missions, we encountered real difficulties in replenishing soldiers and resupplying fuel and food, and found it really necessary to have nearby and efficient logistical support. China and Djibouti consulted with each other and reached consensus on building logistical facilities in Djibouti, which will enable the Chinese troops to better fulfill escort missions and make new contributions to regional peace and stability."
"The nature of relevant facilities is clear, which is to provide logistical support to Chinese fleets performing escort duties in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast," the Spokesman said,
But Gen. Waldhauser told journalists in Washington at the end of March, "You would have to characterize it as a military base. It's s first for them. They've never had an overseas base."
Speaking to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee early in March, Gen. Waldhauser said, "Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same. Whether with trade, natural resource exploitation, or weapons sales, we continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency and good governance."
"These competitors weaken our African partners' ability to govern and will ultimately hinder Africa's long-term stability and economic growth, and they will also undermine and diminish U.S. influence — a message we must continue to share with our partners," Gen. Waldhauser added.
President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti has been steering a new course as he strengthens relations with China at the apparent expense of long-time allies, France and the U.S..
The U.S. now has Special Forces members in Djibouti under its Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to counter the increased activities of al-Shabaab in East Africa.
Soldiers assigned to the East Africa Response Force train for contingency operations on May 30, 2015. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook)
The French and American military dominance in Djibouti was whittled down in February 2014 when China's Defense Minister, General Chang Wanquan, signed a security and defense strategic partnership agreement with Djibouti's Minister of Defense, Hassan Darar Houffaneh.
Under the agreement the country offered military facilities such as the use of Djibouti's port by the Chinese navy.
Mr. Houffaneh said that in exchange Djibouti had asked for military co-operation to be expanded in order that the operational capacities of the country's armed forces could be built "in order to safeguard security in the country and help consolidate peace and security in the sub-region".
But an analyst in Nairobi, speaking to the Ghana News Agency in 2014, wondered how this arrangement would work, given that the U.S. and France more or less had entrenched security roles in Djibouti.
"The American and the French governments have interests in Djibouti that are completely different from China's," he said. "This could lead to contestations between France and the U.S., on the one hand, and China, on the other, which could compromise the security of East Africa. Djibouti is a crucial member of the East African Standby Force, which will dovetail with the African Union's African Standby Force, and as such President Guelleh should ensure that his country remains steadfast to the ASF's mission of maintaining peace and security in the region."
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. had skirted round the issue of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, but now under Donald Trump and his hard-line stance on Beijing's global influence, the issue of the Djibouti base has taken center stage.