Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
The visit of President Ram Nath Kovind to Djibouti from October 3 -4 represented the first ever high level political visit by an Indian leader to that nation in the Horn of Africa. While India has old, traditional trade-related linkages with this former French colony that attained independence in 1977, current political and diplomatic contact has been relatively limited. Thus Kovind’s visit marks the emergence of Djibouti on the Indian radar, albeit in a modest manner.
the strategic importance of the extended Indo-Pacific maritime domain (that links the Red Sea through the Malacca strait to East Asia) for the major powers is reflected in the way the Horn of Africa has become such a sought after destination for extra-regional powers.
Djibouti is a small nation with a population under one million and an area of 23,000 sq. km. (similar to Rwanda) but with few natural resources. Often referred to as an ‘oasis of stability’, the nation sits in a turbulent region. Its neighbours, in particular Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland offer with their recent political history a sharp contrast to the relative stable environment under President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh.
The strategic significance of Djibouti however is inversely proportional to its small demography and derives from its geographical location at the entrance to the Red Sea and its proximity to the Gulf of Aden. The maritime connectivity and related trade relevance that this location accords has been acknowledged over centuries and Djibouti has especially since 9/11 become a nation of relevance for many of the major powers that now operate in the region.
The Djibouti government is deeply cognizant of the advantages that accrue to it due to geography and has been leasing its real-estate to external entities in a pragmatic manner. Thus, six countries have varying degrees of military presence in Djibouti – the largest being the 4,000 strong US troop deployment in the only permanent military base that the Pentagon has in Africa. Other nations include France, Britain, Italy, Japan and, most recently China, which commissioned its first overseas military ‘support’ facility in the Horn of Africa in July 2017. India has now made its first substantive political contact with Djibouti and is likely to progressively enhance its engagement.
During the Kovind meeting with his counterpart President Ismail Omar Guelleh, reference was made to maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the options for Delhi to enable Djibouti in capacity building in certain niche areas that could generate local employment. India may not immediately emulate the USA, China and France in stationing military personnel in Djibouti in a sizeable manner. Yet the strategic importance of the extended Indo-Pacific maritime domain (that links the Red Sea through the Malacca strait to East Asia) for the major powers is reflected in the way the Horn of Africa has become such a sought after destination for extra-regional powers.
While the USA and its allies including France and Britain have a century old inheritance by way of their political presence in the littoral and Indian Ocean islands, China is the most recent entrant to the IOR. The strategic compulsion driving Beijing is evidenced in the high degree of importance accorded to the One Belt-One Road (OBOR or Belt Road Initiative) by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his core team. This macro rail-road-sea connectivity project envisions a total transformation of the existing trade connectivity links in critical parts of Asia, Africa and Europe; the Horn of Africa is a critical node in this ambitious endeavor.
The challenge for India, which has voiced its reservations about both OBOR and the new base in Djibouti, will be in arriving at an astute determination about Beijing’s intent in either jeopardizing or inhibiting Delhi’s pursuit of its own national interest in the extended IOR. China has been steadily increasing its footprint among the Indian Ocean island nations with the Maldives and Sri Lanka being a major case in point.
India by way of response has, alongside Japan, launched the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), with the intention of providing an alternative source of funds for infrastructure projects that seek to boost Africa’s connectivity with the IOR.
Diego Garcia and Djibouti already offer the United States the equivalent of permanent, unsinkable aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean Region and Beijing has its own anxiety about the US military’s standing maritime presence that is commonly referred to as the Malacca dilemma. The Indian presidential visit would suggest that Delhi is not oblivious to the strategic index currently accorded to Djibouti, but how this emerging relationship will be codified remains a work in progress and will be closely watched in the neighborhood and beyond.
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and has been reposted with the permission of the author. Image credit: AMISOM Public Affairs/Flickr.