Assessment of the Military Implication of Chinese Investment in the Port of Djibouti

David Mattingly serves on the board of directors for the Naval Intelligence Professionals and is also a member of the Military Writers Guild.  The views reflected are his own and do not represents the United States Government of any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Military Implication of Chinese Investment in the Port of Djibouti

Date Originally Written:  March 11, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  June 11, 2018.

Summary:  Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. policy in Africa has focused primarily on defeating Al-Qaeda franchises and other violent extremists.  Djibouti’s natural deep-water harbor and stable government have made it the primary transshipment point for maritime trade in Northeastern Africa and as a naval base.  The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) recent investment in the Port of Djibouti, a country with a U.S. military base, begins another chapter in geopolitical competition.

Text:  The U.S. has a standing requirement for overseas bases to support its global operations.  The U.S. Navy ship USS Cole was attacked in October 2000 in Yemen by Al Qaeda.  In 2003, the U.S. established Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) on the French Army’s Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to support combat operations in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2007, a reorganization of the U.S. military’s unified command structure created United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) based in Germany.  In Djibouti, since the establishment of USAFRICOM, the CJTF-HOA mission has increased with the growth of al-Qaeda and other groups such as the Islamic State, the conflict in Libya and Yemen, and pirate attacks on merchant shipping in the region.  In addition to the U.S., Camp Lemonnier is used by France, Japan, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners.

Djibouti’s growth as a transshipment port has increased with the global demand for containerized shipping[1].  Additionally, Africa depends on maritime shipping to carry 90% of its imports and exports.  France created the port of Djibouti in 1888 and it became the capital of French Somaliland in 1892.  Once established, the port of Djibouti quickly became an important refueling station and cargo storage facility for ships traversing the Red Sea to and from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal.  During the closure of the Suez Canal (1967-1975) Djibouti suffered a severe decline in shipping volume.

Today, Djibouti is the linchpin to the PRC’s access to trade with Africa.  Business Tech’s 2015 assessment of African shipping ports states, “Djibouti’s is the only reliable port along the main shipping lanes between Europe and the Gulf and also between Asia on the eastern coast of Africa.” Additionally, Ethiopia lost its access to the sea during its war with Eritrea (1998-2000) and now relies on Djibouti as its transshipment access point.

In 2013, PRC President Xi Jinping, announced the resurgence of the ancient “Silk Road” which linked the PRC to markets in the Middle East and Europe and the idea was formalized in the Belt and Road Action Plan released in 2015.  This plan set out to improve trade relationships through infrastructure investments.  The PRC planned to invest $8 trillion for infrastructure in 68 countries which included Djibouti[2].  The port of Djibouti is critical to both the PRC’s African and European Roads. With the increasing demand for port services, the PRC negotiated to expand existing facilities, build new port facilities, and expand the inland transportation network of Djibouti and Ethiopia.  Due to the lack of natural resources, Djibouti depends on the revenue of its transportation facilities and a 2015 International Monetary Fund Report states “Diversifying [Djibouti’s] economic base remains difficult given that the country lacks natural resources and [its] agriculture and industrial sectors are almost non-existent[3].”

The PRC is the largest source of capital in Djibouti and has provided 40% of the financing for Djibouti’s major infrastructure projects.  Additionally, PRC-based firms built three of the largest projects in Djibouti and the PRC is the minority owners and operators of two of the three[4].

Since the emergence of the Somali pirate threat, the PRC has sought basing rights for the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) ships which joined in the international effort to protect shipping in the region.  The PRC’s interest in a navy base was born out of several ship engineering problems that developed while PLA(N) ships were deployed to the region and military ties had not been established between the PRC and Djibouti.  Although it was only speculated at the time, the PRC negotiated basing rights for the PLA(N) ships in a 2015 finance package and the base became active in September 2017.  The South China Morning Post reported, “The scale of the wharf should allow for the docking of a four-ship flotilla at least, including China’s new generation Type-901 supply ship with a displacement of more than 40,000 tons, destroyers and frigates, as well as amphibious assault ships for combat and humanitarian missions[5].”

The Trump administration released its 2017 National Security Strategy and though the administration appears to be aware of the situation in Djibouti stating, “China is expanding its economic and military presence in Africa, growing from a small investor in the continent two decades ago into Africa’s largest trading partner today,” the strategy lacks any concrete steps describing how U.S. diplomacy should proceed in the region.

An analysis of U.S. soft power in the Trump administration was recently published in Foreign Policy by Max Boot.  The article notes a recent Gallup Poll of “approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%.”  While the PRC is leveraging its economic power to enhance its military position, Boot opines that Trump’s America First campaign has resulted in the declining global opinion of the U.S. which in the long-term may result in a global environment more hostile to U.S. interests.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Henry Kissinger was quoted regarding trends and events that emerged from the Cold War and concludes, “…the rise of India and China is more important than the fall of the Soviet Union[6].”  The U.S. and PRC competition in Djibouti is only the beginning.  While both nations assess each others military forces in Djibouti, other instruments of national power are at work both in Djibouti and elsewhere on the continent.  The U.S. and PRC competition in Africa will likely expand, and be worthy of monitoring over the coming decades.


[1] Africa’s biggest shipping ports. (2015, March 8). Business Tech

[2] Bruce-Lockhart, Anna. China’s $900 billion New Silk Road. What you need to know. World Economic Forum, June 26, 2017

[3] Djibouti Selected Subjects. International Monetary Fund. November 18, 2015

[4] Downs Erica, and Jeffrey Becker, and Patrick deGategno. China’s Military Support Facility in Djibouti: The Economic and Security Dimensions of Chinas First Overseas Base. The CNA Corporation, July 2017.

[5] Chan, Minnie. (2017, September 27). China plans to build Djibouti facility to allow naval flotilla to dock at first overseas base. South China Morning Post.

[6] Mead, W. R. (2018, February 5). A word from Henry Kissinger. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 6, 2018, from

Africa Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) David Mattingly Djibouti United States

Options for U.S. Naval Force Posture in East Africa

Matt Hein is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University.  He can be found on Twitter @Matt_TB_Hein.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Low intensity maritime conflict and engagement in Eastern Africa.

Date Originally Written:  February 11, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  May 21, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article addresses U.S. naval force posture options in East Africa and the implications for a resource-constrained force.

Background:  Demands for counter-piracy operations, countering maritime human smuggling, countering the growth of violent extremism in Sub-Saharan African countries, and partner nation capacity building require the constant presence of U.S. naval forces in East African littoral zones.  Friction arises when high-end combatants such as aircraft carriers and destroyers divert from their East African littoral mission to the nearby Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea to conduct other missions.

Significance:  U.S. naval presence in East Africa has improved maritime security and facilitated operations on land.  Coalition efforts reduced piracy incidents from 237 attempted hijackings in 2011 to only three such attempts in 2017[1].  Joint exercises, such as Cutlass Express, have developed partner nation maritime law enforcement capacity[2].  Intelligence gathering from sea based platforms has enabled multiple U.S. military missions ashore[3].  Increasing demand for high-end combatants in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea leaves the East African littoral mission vulnerable to having its gains reversed and questions the utility of those ships for low intensity missions.  Enhanced naval presence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region, most notably the establishment of a port facility in Djibouti, further complicates force posture decision-making.   Despite the incredible gains realized for maritime security in the region, there is a demand signal for deliberate planning to match appropriate naval assets with a growing range of regional needs.

Option #1:  The U.S. maintains its current naval force posture for the East Africa littoral mission.

Risk:  Current naval force posture rotates multiple Expeditionary Strike Groups and Carrier Strike Groups through the region annually, in addition to several independent deployers dispatched for counter-piracy operations[4].  The opportunity cost of these deployments is enormous.  These ships were designed for much more complex operating environments and can often be better utilized in those environments.  Using multi-billion dollar warships for low intensity engagement not only limits the utility of these ship’s advanced combat systems but also inflates the likelihood they will be diverted to other specialized missions such as ballistic missile defense or integrated air defense.

Gain:  The existing force posture is responsible for enhanced maritime security already realized in the region.  While expanding threats may challenge the ability to maintain these gains, this hasn’t happened to the extent that a dramatic rise in piracy or a drop in partner nation capacity has occurred.  Further, the historical integration and corporate knowledge of U.S. ships deploying to the theater gives them an inherent advantage for conducting these types of operations.

Option #2:  The U.S. forward deploys two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Djibouti Naval Base.

Risk:  Forward-deploying the LCS is expensive and would require a large logistics and maintenance footprint in Djibouti.  Maintenance issues have plagued the LCS and will be exacerbated by a remote maintenance infrastructure with little experience.  Maintenance issues are compounded by difficult crew rotation schedules that have already hampered a similar forward deployment of LCS to Singapore[5].  The probability that forward deployed LCS will provide a persistent capability for the East Africa littoral mission is limited significantly by these LCS-wide problems.

Gain:  The LCS surface warfare mission package is uniquely suited for the East Africa littoral mission.  The LCS uses a combination of high speeds and shallow draft to operate aviation facilities, dedicated boarding teams, and anti-surface capabilities in littoral environments[6].  These attributes make the LCS ideal for intelligence gathering, capacity building, and counter-piracy missions.  Additionally, the use of LCS allows the multi-billion dollar warships currently conducting these missions to operate in more contested environments and across a broader swath of missions in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.   Option #2 also builds on the surge of LCS in similar mission sets from counter-drug operations in the Caribbean to fisheries patrols and bilateral engagements in Southeast Asia.

Option #3:  The U.S. decreases its naval presence in East Africa.

Risk:  The construction of the PRC naval base in Djibouti means the gap in activity from the U.S. Navy would likely be filled, at least in part, by a PRC presence.  The construction of a military docking facility, capable of berthing most People’s Liberation Army (Navy) ships, means previous PRC task forces deployed to the region could become a permanent fixture[7].  As foreign investment pours into East Africa, a reduced naval presence could cause countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia to turn elsewhere for maritime security support of their burgeoning economies.  Option #3 could further challenge the efficacy of counter-extremist efforts on land that require logistical and intelligence support from offshore assets.

Gain:  Decreasing U.S. naval presence does not mean disavowing the East Africa littoral mission entirely.  A P-3 squadron forward-deployed to Djibouti naval base combined with transiting strike groups still leaves intermittent capacity in the region to continue to support the East Africa littoral mission.  Option #3 also eliminates the requirements of keeping ships off the coast of Djibouti.  Not having to keep ships off Djibouti would allow a refocus towards heightened Iranian tensions, threats from Houthi rebels in Yemen, or even relocation to the Pacific fleet operating area in support of growing requirements.

Other Comments:  The Surface Navy Strategic Readiness Review, released in December 2017, stated that increasing readiness “require(s) a variety of naval assets and capabilities tailored to best achieve desired results[8].”  Shifting from a “demand” to “supply” model for naval surface forces means capabilities must be optimized against the mission with which they are tasked.  The options presented in this paper are three examples, of many, for shifting to a supply-based model for naval assets without sacrificing the East Africa littoral mission.

Recommendation:   None.


[1] Sow, M. (2017, April 12). Figures of the week: Piracy and Illegal Fishing in Somalia. Africa in Focus.Retrieved February 9, 2018.

[2] Williams, F. (2018, February 7), Exercise Cutlass Express 2018 Closes. Retrieved February 10, 2018.

[3] Eckstein, M. (2017, July 5).Textron’s Aerosonde Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Eligible for Navy Sea-Based ISR. United States Naval Institute News. Retrieved February 10, 2018.

[4] Defense Media Activity for U.S. Navy Office of Information. Navy Versus Piracy  #PresenceMatters. Retrieved February 10, 2018 from

[5] Lartner, D. (2017, February 20) LCS crew marooned in Singapore on open-ended
deployment. Navy Times. Retrieved February 9, 2018 from

[6] United States Navy Chief of Information. Fact File: Littoral Combat Ships – Surface Warfare Mission Package. Retrieved February 10, 2018 from

[7] Chan, M (2017, September 17) China plans to build Djibouti facility to allow naval flotilla to dock at first overseas base. South China Morning Post. Retrieved February 9, 2018 from

[8] Bayer, M. Roughead, G. (2017, December 4) United States Navy Strategic Readiness
Review. Pg.20. Retrieved February 11, 2018 from

Africa China (People's Republic of China) Djibouti East Africa Horn of Africa Maritime Matt Hein Option Papers United States