Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Backlash Against Chinese Military Activity in Djibouti — and Why It Matters

A Backlash Against Chinese Military Activity in Djibouti — and Why It Matters

In March we published an E-Note about the Chinese decision to establish a base in Djibouti — its first military installation beyond the South China sea. Numerous American policymakers and their allies in the Pacific have raised alarms about the move, while Arab powers, also active in the country, are intrigued.

Djibouti grunge flag

American military planners can be relied upon to prepare countermeasures for whatever challenge the base may one day pose to U.S. forces in the region. It is in any case minimal. But as we showed by highlighting China’s formidable investment in Djiboutian infrastructure and public works, America stands at a comparative disadvantage in terms of soft power influence in the country. Hopes to mitigate the problem impel American scrutiny of any Djiboutian political trends with potential bearing on China’s status there.

Accordingly, it is worth noting that a Djiboutian opposition party has sent an open letter of protest to Chinese President Xi Jinping. The “National Democratic Party of Djibouti” is headed by Hassan Cher Hared, a former political prisoner now living in Switzerland. The group has not served in government since 2010, when President Ismail Omar Guelleh circumvented the constitution, ran for a third term, and gutted the ruling coalition. The content of the letter may nonetheless channel sentiments shared by a portion of the population. 

Hared denigrates the Guelleh government as a “mafia regime.” He warns that unemployment is high and debt is rising fast. He blames China for having loaned the country $1 billion on highly unfavorable terms — only ten years to repay the loan, at a five percent interest rate with no grace period — while Guelleh and his cronies steal much of the money. China’s treatment of Djibouti is an “abusive power relationship,” he writes, akin to the Soviet Union’s backing of Somali dictator Siad Barre in the 1970s. He adds that while the Chinese may be only too happy to see their client Guelleh increasingly at odds with the United States, Beijing should take notice that it is angering the Djiboutian population. Finally, Hared demands that China stipulate anti-corruption measures in disbursing its loan to Guelleh, halt construction of the base, and remove its troops from the country.

The letter is dated January 21st, the day Beijing announced its plan to build the base. Hared appears to have been circulating it ever since. FPRI president Alan Luxenberg recently received a copy via e-mail. Others cc’ed included the foreign ministries of the UAE and Bahrain, American and European human rights groups, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This spread of recipients suggests that Hared wants to win sympathy in the West and diminish esteem for Guelleh in the eyes of his Gulf supporters. (As we noted in the March E-Note, Arabic media write favorably about Guelleh as a nation builder who would like to make his country “the Dubai of Africa.”) Hared’s humble effort at political outreach has not attracted attention in English-language reporting about Djibouti — though some Arabs have noticed it, and relayed the critique of China in Arabic media.

Hared’s grievance resembles the familiar dissatisfaction with Chinese economic policies elsewhere in Africa among other populations that experience them. But in this first Chinese experiment at military deployment on the continent, the possibility of a political backlash will especially concern Beijing. It should also interest Washington.