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Navigating the Waters: China’s Strategic Gambit in Djibouti

China’s investments in Djibouti represent a pivotal moment for U.S. interests in a global maritime nexus. The establishment of China’s first overseas military base, coupled with expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, underscores the tangible manifestations of China’s ambitions in the region. These developments are significant not only for their potential to alter regional power dynamics, but also for enabling China to project its military power more effectively and enhance its intelligence-gathering capabilities near U.S. and allied forces. Moreover, the risk of Djibouti falling into a debt trap, unable to repay Chinese loans, could lead to critical infrastructure falling under Chinese control, compounding the challenges faced by the U.S. in maintaining its influence and safeguarding its interests in this maritime corridor.

Geopolitical and Economic Interests

Djibouti, positioned at the Red Sea’s entrance near the Suez Canal, is a key maritime chokepoint for global oil shipments that is central to China’s trade routes with Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. China’s interest in Djibouti, aimed at securing these vital shipping lanes, is part of a broader strategy to extend its global influence and enhance its diplomatic leverage. By establishing a presence in Djibouti, China not only safeguards its trade and energy routes but also gains a strategic vantage point in a region of interest to major global powers, positioning itself as a key player in international geopolitical dynamics.

As part of China’s BRI, Djibouti is being transformed into a strategic hub through Chinese investments in ports, railways, roads, and the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ), poised to become one of Africa’s largest free trade zones. This development aims to cement Djibouti’s position as a vital link between Asia and Africa, driving economic growth and enhancing trade efficiency across continents. Furthermore, China’s involvement extends beyond physical infrastructure to economic diplomacy, providing financing and expertise that anchor Djibouti and similar BRI nations within China’s sphere of economic influence. This strategy not only promotes regional integration and cooperation, allowing nations like Ethiopia improved access to global markets, but also cultivates a network of countries with economic ties to China, potentially converting into political support and expanding China’s global sway.

China’s infrastructure ventures in Djibouti such as the Doraleh Container Port, railways, and telecommunications, as shown in Figure 1, have potential dual-use capabilities for both civilian and military purposes. These projects not only bolster China’s maritime influence by securing vital trade routes but also extend its naval reach in the Red Sea. The Doraleh Port, a vital hub near one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, underpins China’s efforts to project maritime power, ensure the security of maritime lanes, and strengthen economic ties with Africa. The surveillance and security operations it offers China are a significant advantage, influencing regional trade dynamics and potentially altering the geopolitical landscape while raising international concerns about control over crucial maritime chokepoints.

Figure 1: Chinese investments in Djibouti. Source: © September 2021 AidData.

Military Interests and Security Implications

Djibouti’s strategic position is crucial not only for economic but also for military and security reasons, lying in a region historically challenged by piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia’s coast. China’s engagement in Djibouti extends to enhancing the security of its maritime trade routes against piracy and terrorism. The establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 marked a pivotal shift in its foreign policy towards proactive global engagement, serving as a logistics hub for naval operations and enabling China to project power within the Indian Ocean, safeguarding its interests amidst a landscape of multiple global powers vying for influence.

The strategic positioning of China’s military base in Djibouti, near Western bases, provides a point for intelligence gathering, including the potential for eavesdropping on military communications of Western forces, thereby impacting the operational security of their regional activities. The base, if equipped with advanced communication and surveillance capabilities, alongside China’s prowess in cyber warfare and electronic espionage, could heighten the risk of compromising sensitive military information. The underground facilities at Doraleh, as seen in Figure 2, might enable sophisticated cyber operations, including intercepting communications and hacking into networks, posing a significant threat to the security and strategic objectives of Western nations in Djibouti. Furthermore, the intertwining of Chinese military efforts with its business and economic ventures could facilitate passive intelligence collection, amplifying the potential for espionage and information warfare that could undermine Western credibility and effectiveness in Africa and beyond.

Figure 2: Overview of Chinese military base in Djibouti. Source: © 2024 3GIMBALS

Implications for the Sino-Indian Rivalry

China’s naval base in Djibouti, part of its “String of Pearls” strategy to establish military and commercial facilities along key maritime routes, has significant implications for its regional rivalry with India. This strategic foothold in the Horn of Africa, alongside investments in surrounding countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, is viewed by India as an attempt to encircle it strategically, challenging India’s traditional dominance in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Ocean’s importance to India’s security and economy, as a vital trade and energy route, makes China’s presence in Djibouti and its growing influence in adjacent seas a matter of strategic concern, potentially altering the balance of power and undermining India’s influence among Indian Ocean Rim countries.


China’s multifaceted engagement in Djibouti, encompassing infrastructure development, economic diplomacy, and military expansion under the Belt and Road Initiative, demonstrates a strategic consolidation of influence in a key location within the Horn of Africa. This relationship, while beneficial for Djibouti’s connectivity and infrastructure, brings forth challenges regarding sovereignty, debt sustainability, and regional power dynamics. The potential for China to assume control over Djibouti’s critical assets in case of debt repayment failures, similar to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, poses significant sovereignty and autonomy risks for Djibouti. Such scenarios could lead to increased geopolitical leverage for China, potentially impacting Western military operations, shipping routes, and the regional balance of power, while also serving China’s intelligence-gathering efforts. As global dynamics shift, Djibouti’s challenge will be to maintain its national interests and autonomy, ensuring that its partnerships contribute to sustainable development and do not compromise its strategic assets or sovereignty amidst broader geopolitical currents.

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