African agency and Chinese power: The case of Djibouti

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Abstract

It seems unlikely that Djibouti – smaller than Belgium and with fewer than 1 million inhabitants – can expect to enjoy any agency vis-à-vis the Chinese behemoth. Djibouti’s agency depends upon many factors, including its strategic geographical location; the great powers’ concern over the security of sea lanes of communications and, as a result, piracy in the Gulf of Aden; China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and interest in establishing a naval base there; and reactions to these Chinese decisions by Djibouti’s other partners. In other words, the great powers’ interest in and competition over Djibouti have widened this country’s room for manoeuvre.

Led mostly by state-owned enterprises and feeding Djibouti’s external debt, China’s rapidly growing economic footprint in Djibouti and its decision to establish a naval base there have strengthened the Chinese government’s leverage in the country. As a result, Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh has moved his country closer to China, joining Xi Jinping’s BRI in 2018 and triggering growing concerns among its Western partners. Nonetheless, China has to a large extent been responding to the Djibouti government’s own requests. At the same time, Guelleh and his clan have tried to keep a balance among the country’s main partners, maintaining close relations in particular with the US and France, its former colonial master. Moreover, most of Djiboutian society and the elite are closer to these countries than to China, constraining their government’s options in spite of Guelleh’s authoritarian tendencies. Consequently, while welcoming China’s infrastructure projects
and military presence, Guelleh has recently shown a willingness to limit this country’s dominance by diversifying Djibouti’s sources of funding and economic partnerships.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherSouth African Institute of International Affairs
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020

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