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Located on the horn of Africa where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, the small country of Djibouti usually passes under the radar. That is, to those who do not track the subtle rivalries and competitions that play out between major world powers in this small 23,000 km2 zone. The more I researched Djibouti’s foreign policy strategies, the more I noticed that the tensions unraveling around this nation reflect broader geopolitical dynamics that occur today and in the past. By paying attention to less prominent regions, we can learn a lot about global issues and their mutations and hopefully make more informed decisions as (future) world leaders.

What was Djibouti’s historical significance?

Djibouti sits at the intersection of Asia, Europe, and Africa on the Bab el Mandeb Strait, host to 30 percent of global shipping traffic. Due to its location, the country has enjoyed historical importance: we can trace the Port of Djibouti’s significance to the Middle Ages when the Ifat Sultanate began moving slaves and precious metals through Djibouti’s port in exchange for political and financial support. During the “Scramble for Africa,” Djibouti became one of the many strategic regions occupied by France to rival British and Italian presence in East Africa. During World War 2, these colonies were even more crucial for France as they sent soldiers to be part of France’s colonial army that helped liberate Provence in 1944.

What are Djibouti’s geopolitical strategies?

In the 1970s, Djibouti embraced the “Third-World” strategy of non-alignment after gaining its independence from France in 1977 with a UN Resolution. From that point on, ethnic divisions between the Afar and Issa tribes plagued the nation’s political stability, making Djibouti’s government reliant on French presence to remain in power. In 2000, things began to change. China launched its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to begin Chinese “aid” projects in Africa to affirm itself as the leader of a growing sphere of influence. China built a hospital in Djibouti, invested in rail lines, and provided food and water aid during the drought in 2005. In 2012, when President Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative, Djibouti was among the many countries to benefit from Chinese money. The two countries together labeled the project “Vision Djibouti 2035,” aiming to make Djibouti into East Africa’s largest trade hub. Conversely, the US began to take an interest in Djibouti around 2002 when it launched its “War on Terror” and needed a semi-local military base from which to launch operations in the Middle East. Djibouti’s openness to foreign militaries has attracted other world powers too. Between 2000 and 2010, Japan, Italy, and China also opened bases there to combat piracy in the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which threatened their exports.

Djibouti’s foreign policy strategy is an “open to all” approach, motivated by the economic benefits of collaborating with many foreign partners. With all the instability in every country surrounding it (Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland disputes, and Yemen’s civil war), Djibouti’s interests are also defense-oriented. However, Djibouti’s eagerness to accommodate any international actor willing to cut them a good deal creates a significant amount of debt, especially to the Chinese. Tensions are rising because any concession made to China will inflame the US or France, who would see it as a betrayal by their self-proclaimed democratic ally. At some point, Djibouti will be forced to choose an allegiance. Will they prioritize American protection? Debts to China? Or historical and cultural attachment to France? And how will other powers react? These are the perilous questions with which Djibouti must contend. Yet its corruption and ethnic divisions may distract from these issues until they are too imminent to ignore.

Nonetheless, the US and France’s attractivity as a paternalistic power is not as great as they may believe. While Djibouti has an interest in keeping both countries close, China’s development focus seems to be the better strategy to expand influence. Djibouti has hospitals, transport lines, water dams, and soon the first African spaceport thanks to Chinese funding. Its alliance with the US has recently attracted Houthi bombings in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, making the country less safe despite the improving situation facing Somali piracy.

The US and France have not completely shaken off their colonizer approach when dealing with African alliances. China seems genuinely interested in local growth. The US and France may see that partnership is better than paternalism, but in practice, they still act as the great benefactors of less developed countries instead of creating symbiotic relationships.

What can Djibouti’s case tell us about broader geopolitical dynamics in Africa?

The clashing of interests in Djibouti highlights that foreign powers see Africa as a strategic region to invest in and develop. But not all parts of Africa are treated equally. Western powers care more about their own interests in trade and defense than developing the region sustainably, choosing to focus exclusively on strategic sectors that allow them to grow. Djibouti’s openness and rapprochement with China indicate that the West’s self-interested strategies are no longer the best foreign policy. Other African countries reflect this: Niger’s coup, Mali’s rejection of France, Kenya and Angola’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative. In many cases, China’s focus on “mutual benefit” makes them a much more viable partner, even if their “debt-trap diplomacy” generates many critiques.

The US has tried to change its approach. The Biden Administration’s African Growth and Opportunity Act represents a pivotal turn in the US’ strategies in Africa. But these efforts are too little too late. Africa has moved away from Western influence, highlighting previous domination and violence to underscore the decision. China understands what the US and France don’t: image matters. Collaboration and conversation are essential to all foreign policy. But coming across as willing to discuss is just as crucial too.


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