Djibouti, Djibouti — Earlier this month, China opened its first overseas base in the small northern African country of Djibouti sending upwards of 400 troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to occupy the freshly minted military compound that China has deemed a “logistics facility” which will provide security of Chinese exports as well as protection of the vital Bab-el-Mandeb waterway where China ships its precious oil exports through on a daily basis.
The Chinese base nestled in the Obock region of Djibouti is apart of China’s defensive and economic offensive known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is designed to connect mainland China to its various economic and natural resource procurement ventures throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Now, with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships on their final leg of their trip to their new base in Obock, China is now offering to fill the peace-keeping gap left by Qatar along the contested border of Eritrea and Djibouti. Yet, this posits the question: is China worried about keeping the peace along this border, or more interested in keeping its oil terminals pumping.
Shortly after the end of World War I, France and Great Britain began dismantling Germany’s colonial empire within Africa. Both France and Great Britain agreed that Italy would not receive any territories of the former German colonies due to both countries feeling the Italians hadn’t sacrificed as much as they had in the Great War and took the lion’s share for themselves.
This of course infuriated Benito Mussolini who demanded compensation for Italy’s efforts in the war, to which Britain parsed off a portion of its Kenyan colony to the Italian Somalia in 1925. The French held out until the 1935 where under concerns of the growing Nazi Germany threat penned the Franco-Italian Agreement where Eritrea and parts of French Somaliland, now known as Djibouti be ceded the Italians.
The portion of French Somaliland given to the Italians is known as the Ras Doumeira region which, fast forward to today, is the point of armed contention between the governments of Djibouti and Eritrea that United Nations-backed Qatari peace-keepers were tasked to maintain the shaky peace along this border. That is until June 14th of this year when just days after both Eritrea and Djibouti sided with Saudi Arabia against Qatar in the on-going diplomatic tug-of-war within the Gulf States, Qatar pulled all 500 of its peace-keepers out in response in what many within the international community called a “knee-jerk reaction.”
This left a void along the contested borders and now its being reported that Eritrea have occupied areas within the Ras Doumeira mountain range and the Doumeira Island within the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway, right smack dab in the middle of the international commerce shipping lane. And that has China nervous and may be the reason why they offered to place their ‘peace-keepers’ along the border.
It is no secret that China is heavily invested in East Africa, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, and most importantly the massive oil reserves within the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The Ogaden region is set to be a massive oil and natural gas producer by 2018, which is already pumping about 40 billion gallons annually already.
China, reading the tea leaves on this moved quickly and sent in the State-owned GCL Poly Petroleum Investment Group, the energy and resource procurement division of Poly Technologies, China’s largest defense manufacturing company run by the People’s Liberation Army.
GCL Poly signed a petroleum production sharing agreement (PPSA) with the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines (MoM) in 2013 for rights to develop the oil and gas fields found in the Ogaden basin with infrastructure projects encompassing two major pipelines to be constructed ending at the ports of Damerdjog, Djibouti along with a light-rail train system running from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to the ports of Djibouti.
The Odagen region of Ethiopia borders Somalia and about 8 million ethnic Somali’s occupy the majority of the basin and are obviously in the way of Chinese and Ethiopian economic progress. So with the ink barely dry on the GCL Poly pipeline deal, Ethiopia sent in its troops to issue out eviction notices to the ethic Somalis which, at times, were paid in blood. China of course turned a blind eye to the atrocities as local politics is none of their concern, only the precious resources harvested in a timely manner. However local conflict has a way of halting the flow of the “black gold” as China has seen in the conflict zones of Sudan and South Sudan. So having a military base just to the north of their oil and natural gas field in Djibouti could prove beneficial in the defense of its economic infrastructure investments it has in the East Africa region.
China is already one of the largest contributors of peace-keepers in East Africa compared to the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It already has close to 3,000 troops in Africa with an additional 400 arriving to its first overseas military base in Djibouti by months end. Yet, is China really interested in truly helping keep the peace in Africa or using its U.N.-backed “blue helmets” troops as a cover at actually protect its investments within the region.
The strategic deployment of Chinese troops in the Sudan and South Sudan along with its opening of a base in Djibouti may be proving the latter.
Featured image courtesy of China News