Djibouti’s Hosting of U.S., China Bases is Strategic for Survival

Daisuke Kawakami / The Yomiuri Shimbun
MSDF destroyer Makinami is seen at a port in Djibouti on May 1.

DJIBOUTI / JOHANNESBURG — Japan and many other countries used Djibouti, a small African country, as their base when they evacuated their nationals from conflict-engulfed Sudan in April. Djibouti is attracting renewed attention for its unique strategy of hosting the military bases of various countries, taking advantage of its strategic location along the Red Sea.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Makinami, dispatched on a counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, was seen docked at Djibouti Port earlier this month.

Japan established the SDF’s first overseas base in Djibouti in 2011. This year, the Air Self-Defense Force’s aircraft used Djibouti as its base when the Japanese government evacuated its nationals from Sudan in late April after the situation in Sudan deteriorated.

Djibouti is located on the border between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. The country, about the size of Japan’s Shikoku region with a population of approximately 1 million people, is at a strategic point for maritime transportation, with the Red Sea connecting to the Suez Canal, which reportedly sees about 10% of the world’s maritime traffic.

With its political stability and geopolitical importance, countries including its former colonizer France as well as the United States and China have established military bases there.

Alexis Mohamed, a senior advisor to the president of Djibouti, said of these countries, “They seem to consider Djibouti as necessary, not only to ensure the safety of their commercial ships but also in order to fight piracy and terrorism.”

Djibouti’s presence is also growing as a base for evacuation operations in Africa where many countries are experiencing political instability.

Japanese Ambassador to Djibouti Umio Otsuka said, “Having a base in Djibouti led to a smooth and successful evacuation from Sudan.” Japan also dispatched SDF officials to Djibouti in November 2021 in preparation for a possible evacuation of Japanese nationals from Djibouti’s western neighbor Ethiopia, where conflict was escalating at the time.

Friends for protection

Djibouti’s acceptance of various countries’ military bases can be considered a national strategy for the nation’s survival. Djibouti lacks natural resources, and its agriculture is not flourishing due to a harsh climate with high temperature and humidity. It aims to become an international hub like Singapore by taking on the role of a seaport for Ethiopia, a landlocked country with a population of 117 million. Large-scale port development is underway with investments by China and other countries.

Military bases bring about local employment. The United States is said to be paying Djibouti $63 million a year for the use of the base. It has been pointed out that Djibouti could be aiming to negotiate favorable terms by accepting the bases of both the United States and China, which are at odds with each other.

“When you have a lack of security in some neighboring countries, this immediately has repercussions for us,” Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf said to The Yomiuri Shimbun in an interview. He stressed that hosting the bases of various countries “is best for Djibouti.”

“You have to protect yourself. Either you have the capacity to do it on your own, or you have friends. It’s good to have friends, partners.”