The United States should boost its military presence in Djibouti and the region surrounding the Bab al-Mandab Strait to counter an increasingly assertive — and belligerent — China, say Israeli intelligence officials and independent experts.
China’s use last May of lasers to interfere with U.S pilots will be the least of problems the U.S faces in the region, they argue. (According to the Pentagon, two US military pilots suffered minor eye damage from lasers hitting the cockpit of their C-130 transport aircraft.) In fact, the US is already being forced to play catch up in the region, says Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and a senior researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies, both at Tel Aviv University. Rabi told Breaking Defense that the U.S faces a major strategic problem: “The Chinese chose Djibouti because of its strategic location in Africa and mainly because it gives foreign military forces that built bases in this country control of one of the most important water ways – the Bab Al Mandeb Strait. The U.S understood the move very late and now there is very little Washington can do.”
The U.S. did build the 500-acre Camp Lemonnier base after the September 11 attacks where it coordinates American military activities across the region. However, China built its first overseas base in its 2,000-year history a few miles down the road in 2016, and the laser emissions coming from this facility, the Americans claim.
Now President Trump’s tariff tirades are helping to foster a more turbulent atmosphere.
“The trade war between the U.S and China awakened what were small clash points between the two super power. The question of who is more powerful in Djibouti is one of the small clashes that have developed over night to a major conflict,” Rabi told Breaking Defense.
He added that by making massive investments in Djibouti and neighboring African countries,Djibouti gains added weight as an asset.
“The Chinese investments are part of a major plan to control this region of the world. That is also the location of the only U.S military base in the region. That decision was made on purpose, knowing that the American base is used for many anti-terror operations in the region and is the scene for many terror acts performed by ISIS and other Islamic groups,” Rabi said. He pointed to the fact that the Chinese have an almost permanent naval presence in the region, including their only aircraft carrier. “The (eight Chinese) joint exercises with the Russian navy are also a power demonstration orchestrated by the Chinese. Beijing is putting its finger in the American eye , and Washington is very limited in its options to react.”
The Israeli researcher said that China took full advantage of the Obama years in the White House, during which they strengthened their military presence in this region, which is both geostrategically significant and of great importance to Israel.
Satellite view of Djibouti
The Red Sea basin includes 12 states with a combined population of around 300 million. On the eastern shore lie Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel share the Gulf of Aqaba. On the African coast of the Red Sea are Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti. The Red Sea basin also includes Ethiopia, with no direct access to the sea, as well as Somaliland and Somalia, which are located in the Gulf of Aden, opposite Yemen, at the entrance to the Red Sea.
In geographical terms, the Red Sea divides between Africa in the west and Asia in the east, and forms part of the Syrian-African rift. In geopolitical terms, throughout history the Red Sea served as one of the most vital trade routes in the world, connecting Europe and the west on the one hand with the Middle East on the other. Today it is one of the busiest trade route in the world. For this reason, Egypt is of particular importance as it constitutes a bridge between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia are located on both sides of the straits of Bab al-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden, at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Three factors have threatened the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, making it one of the “hottest” areas in the world and an arena for rivalry and competition between superpowers and regional powers alike.
According to Moshe Terdiman, an expert on Islam in Africa, these factors are: the activities of terror organizations linked to al-Qaeda and Daesh in Somalia and Yemen, Somali pirates, and the war in Yemen. “Considering the need to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and to eradicate the elements threatening it, and in the framework of ongoing economic and political struggles, the great powers and other countries established military bases in the southern Red Sea basin and took control of its main ports. Djibouti houses French, US, EU, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese military bases, making it the country with the most foreign military bases in the world “
The construction of the Chinese base in Djibouti arose from the competition between China, on the one hand, and India and Japan for hegemony in the Indian Ocean. As part of this struggle, which has been underway for the past decade, both sides have established military bases and ports in the area. In recent months, Russia’s begun talks with the government of Somaliland about building a military base there.
Also, the Russian government has signed agreements with Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia for the establishment of civilian nuclear power stations. In parallel to the struggle between the great powers for influence and hegemony in the Indian Ocean and Djibouti, a similar battle is underway in the Red Sea between the local powers. This battle began a year ago, in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and Mauritania severed relations with Qatar. The diplomatic crisis between the Gulf states affected the balance of power between the rival states in the Red Sea Basin. Saudi Arabia and the UAE regard the shores of Somalia,
The concatenation of foreign military bases in Djibouti and the Chinese plans that became more imminent because of President Trump’s trade war with China is bringing the experts to consider this tiny country as an “Ignition point” that can create a small incident that might escalate.
To counteract this, the experts, some from the Israeli intelligence community, say that the U.S must increase its military presence in the area.
By ARIE EGOZI