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From rail and airports to its first overseas naval base, China zeroes in on tiny Djibouti



Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh will arrive in China on Wednesday for a three-day state visit that is expected to further boost ties with the African nation.

 Situated in the Horn of Africa – adjacent to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes – Djibouti has a population of less than one million and is home to China’s first overseas military base.

With access to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond, the area is a gateway into Northeast Africa and the Red Sea region.

According to United Nations trade data, Djibouti’s exports to China – including leather, salt and cement – totalled just US$7,500 in 2009. That compares to China’s exports to Djibouti, such as vehicles and electronic equipment, which reached US$20.7 million that year. But the relationship between the two nations goes far beyond trade.

PLA personnel attend the opening ceremony of China’s new military base in Djibouti in August. Photo: AFP

People’s Liberation Army naval base

China is the seventh country to set up a military base in Djibouti, a relatively stable nation with proximity to restive areas in Africa and the Middle East.

But Beijing has played down military use of the base, claiming it will be used for “logistics purposes”.

It said the base would enable China to better support its peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in waters off nearby Somalia and Yemen, in particular.

Other countries with military bases in the former French colony include the United States, Japan and France, and these bases provide the country’s biggest source of income and employment.

China agreed to pay US$100 million per year for its base in Djibouti, while the US pays US$63 million.

Natural gas

Last week, China’s POLY-GCL Petroleum Group signed a memorandum of understanding to invest US$4 billion in a natural gas project at Damerjog. The preliminary agreement will be finalised in six months, with work to begin on the project soon afterwards. It includes a natural gas pipeline, a liquefaction plant and an export terminal.

The gas pipeline will transport 12 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from Ethiopia to Djibouti, while the liquefaction plant has a target capacity of 10 million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas.

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh arrives in China on Wednesday for a three-day state visit. Photo: AFP

Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway

The 750km railway linking Djibouti and Ethiopia is the first fully electrified cross-border railway line in Africa.

China Railway Group and China Civil Engineering Construction Corp (CCECC) financed 70 per cent of the US$490 million project. Under the deal, Chinese staff will run the project for the first five years, after which Ethiopians will take over.

Launched in October last year, it took four years to build and connects the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti – through which 90 per cent of Ethiopia’s goods are traded. Commercial operations are due to begin this month.


Two new airports in Djibouti were to be built by CCECC at a combined cost of nearly US$600 million under contracts signed in 2015. But the projects are expected to be put out for tender again, according to a Bloomberg report last month. It is unclear why the projects will go through another tendering process, but the report quoted a local official as saying that the Chinese company “will have no exclusivity”, although it can apparently bid for the contracts again.

Hassan Gouled Aptidon International Airport will be 25km from the capital and was due to open in 2018. With capacity for 1.5 million passengers per year, the airport is to have runways big enough for commercial jets including the Airbus A380.

The other airport, Ahmed Dini Ahmed International Airport, located in the north of the country, will have capacity for 767,400 passengers annually.

The Port of Doraleh in the capital, Djibouti City. China’s exports to the African nation reached US$20.7 million in 2009. Photo: Felix Wong

Free-trade zone

In January, Djibouti started construction of a free-trade zone with Chinese funding. The 48 sq km free-trade zone is being built by Dalian Port. The zone will be operated by the Djibouti Ports and Free Zone Authority in a joint venture with China Merchants Holdings.

Briefing Room

Port deal underscores Djibouti’s reliance on Ethiopia



When Djibouti makes international headlines, it is usually in connection with the many superpowers that have built military bases on its shore. France, the United States, China, Italy and Japan all have a major military presence in the tiny East African nation. But for Djibouti’s government, there is another major power that is even more important: Ethiopia.

It is difficult to overstate just how dependent Djibouti’s economy is on its much larger neighbour. There is almost no fresh water in Djibouti, so it must import water from Ethiopia. Most of its electricity comes from Ethiopia too. Little grows in Djibouti’s arid desert landscape, so fresh fruits, vegetables and grains are trucked across the Ethiopian border every day.

Economically, by far Djibouti’s most valuable assets are its ports. But these too are almost entirely reliant on a healthy trading relationship with Ethiopia, which, being landlocked, requires an outlet to the sea.

More than a century ago, when the old Port of Djibouti was built by the French colonisers, it was connected with a railway that linked Addis Ababa to Djibouti City. Given the size differences of the two countries – today Ethiopia’s population is more than 100 million, while Djibouti’s is less than 1 million – the port was never about trade with Djibouti, but trade with Ethiopia. It is no coincidence that today, the new Doraleh Container Terminal is the end of the line for the new Chinese-built Addis-Djibouti standard gauge railway.
If trade from Ethiopia dries up, ships will no longer be queuing at sea for their turn to dock at these ports. This is significant because there are two separate situations that threaten the trading relationship between Ethiopia and Djibouti. The first is the brewing political crisis in Ethiopia.

In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly submitted his resignation. Immediately, the ruling party declared a state of emergency, which was recently ratified by Parliament. Despite this, the widespread anti-government protests continue, especially in the Oromia region which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, as well as in Amhara Region. At the same time, a power vacuum within the ruling coalition has created uncertainty about Ethiopia’s political future, prompting fears of further instability. A new prime minister is expected to be announced soon.

This is potentially very bad news for Djibouti. Any disruption to Ethiopia’s economy will have a knock-on effect on Djibouti, while a political crisis may precipitate a humanitarian emergency that would result in an increase of refugees across the border. Although Djibouti has recently reformed its refugee laws, earning praise from the United Nations Refugee Agency, it remains ill-equipped to deal with a major refugee influx.

Ethiopia is considered an anchor in the Horn of Africa, so any disruption will have knock-on effects. ‘Unrest in Ethiopia has serious implications for regional stability,’ says Emily Estelle, a senior analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

The second situation of some concern to Djibouti’s government is Ethiopia’s recent acquisition of a 19% stake in the Port of Berbera in neighbouring Somaliland. Berbera is positioning itself as a rival to Djibouti, and is clearly making a major play to handle more Ethiopian freight. Somaliland is also in the process of building the Berbera trade corridor, which will eventually link Berbera to Addis Ababa by road.

Historically, one of Djibouti’s strategic advantages has been its stability. In an inherently unstable part of the world – its other neighbours include Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen – Djibouti represents a relatively low-risk investment destination. But Somaliland is providing competition on this front.

The self-declared republic operates entirely independently of Somalia proper, even though this independence is not formally recognised by anyone else. Nonetheless, Somaliland has successfully established a peaceful democracy marked by regular transitions of power – in marked contrast to President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s long rule in Djibouti (19 years and counting).

Therefore Somaliland too is becoming an attractive investment destination on the coast of the Horn of Africa – and Ethiopia, in acquiring its Berbera stake, clearly agrees. What does this mean for Djibouti? Will Ethiopia incentivise local freight traffic to run through the port in which it retains a financial interest? Or is there enough cargo to go around?

That’s the view of port operator DP World’s chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem. ‘I am so excited about the prospects of working with the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is home to approximately 110 million people. The ports of Berbera and Doraleh will provide significant capacity to the region. Both these ports and more capacity will be needed to serve the region’s growth potential in the future,’ he said.

Sulayem’s comments came even after DP World suffered a dramatic setback in Djibouti. Until recently, DP World operated both the Berbera port and the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti. But in February the Djibouti government unilaterally cancelled the DP World contract and seized its stake in the port, claiming that DP World had obtained the contract in a corrupt manner – a charge the company denies.

If all goes according to plan, Sulayem is right – a rising Ethiopia should provide more than enough trade to keep both Berbera and Doraleh busy, and fill the coffers of both the Djibouti and Somaliland governments. But against a background of increasing political instability in Ethiopia, there can be no guarantees that the plan is going to work – and tiny Djibouti may pay the price for hitching its wagon so close to Ethiopia’s train.

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Djibouti signs port deal with Singapore-based Pacific International Lines



DJIBOUTI (Reuters) – Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal Management Company has signed a deal with Singapore-based Pacific International Lines (PIL) to raise by a third the amount of cargo handled at the port, the country’s Ports and Zones Authority said on Tuesday.

The agreement is expected to raise performance at the Doraleh Container Terminal, allowing it to handle an extra 300,000 20-foot equivalent unit containers (TEU) annually, the authority said, without providing any further details.

Last month, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012. [nL8N1QC6D5]
DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration, which last year cleared DP World of all charges of misconduct over the concession to run the terminal.

The Doraleh terminal has a capacity of 1.6 million TEUs per year. “This agreement is a first important step towards Doraleh Container Terminal fulfilling its capacity potential,” the ports authority said.

PIL is one of Asia’s biggest shipping companies, ranked “11th amongst the top container ship operators in the world,”, it said on its website.

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‘Significant’ consequences if China takes key port in Djibouti: U.S. general



WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. general for Africa told lawmakers on Tuesday that the American military could face “significant” consequences should China take a key port in Djibouti, as Beijing becomes increasingly muscular in Africa in an effort to expand its influence.

Last month, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012.

DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration.

During a congressional hearing on Tuesday, which was dominated by concerns about China’s role in Africa, lawmakers said they had seen reports that Djibouti seized control of the port to give it to China as a gift. China has already built a military base in Djibouti, just miles from a critical U.S. military base.

“If this was an illegal seizure of that port, what is to say that government wouldn’t illegally terminate our lease before its term is up,” said Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican.

In a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Byrne said he was concerned about China’s influence in Djibouti and the impact it would have on U.S. military and intelligence assets.

Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.

Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said that if China placed restrictions on the port’s use, it could affect resupplying the U.S. base in Djibouti and the ability of Navy ships to refuel there.

“If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant,” Waldhauser said during the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing.

Djibouti hosts a vital U.S. military base that is home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launchpad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.

“There are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast. … So Djibouti happens to be the first,; there will be more,” Waldhauser said.

China has sought to be visible in Africa, including through high-profile investment in public infrastructure projects, as it deepens its trade ties.

Waldhauser said that the United States would be unable to match the scale of that investment throughout the continent, noting Beijing’s construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even soccer stadiums.

“We’ll never outspend the Chinese in (Africa),” Waldhauser said, noting some of the Chinese investments in Djibouti.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday the United States will give more than $533 million in humanitarian aid for victims of conflicts and drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the West and Central African countries bordering Lake Chad.

But Tillerson contrasted the United States’ work on the African continent, which he said promoted “sustainable growth,” with that of China, which recently pledged $124 billion for its Silk Road plan to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and other places.

Tillerson said China’s investment in Africa “encouraged dependency.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. military put countering China, along with Russia, at the center of a new national defense strategy.

The Pentagon said China was a part of “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

Waldhauser said he was in the process of rewriting U.S. military strategy in the region with China in mind.

“China has been on the African continent for quite some time, but we as a combatant command have not dealt with it in terms of a strategic interest,” Waldhauser said.

“We are taking baby steps in that regard,” he added.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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