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

South China Sea: Continuous U.S. Presence or a new Law of the Sea Treaty 

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.

National Security Situation:  The United Nations Convention for the Law of Sea (UNCLOS III) has failed to adequately define a nation’s territorial waters and to create a body which can enforce its judgements on nations involved in arbitration.

Date Originally Written:  February 7, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 6, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  David Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy and has sailed with U.S. Navy Carrier Task Groups in the South China Sea (SCS).  He holds a Masters of Arts in National Security Studies where he studied the geopolitics of the SCS and authored “The South China Sea Geopolitics: Controversy and Confrontation.”

Background:  Over the centuries, a few countries with strong navies controlled the world’s oceans.  The outcome of many conflicts fought on land often had a strong maritime element.  Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius first addressed the Law of Sea in his 1609 treatise Mare Liberum in which he established the idea of the freedom of the seas[1].  After  World War II and the emergence of the United Nations, the first Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concluded with four treaties being signed: Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (CTS); Convention on the High Seas (CHS); Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas (CFCLR); and Convention on the Continental Shelf (CCS); as well as the Optional Protocol of Signature concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes (OPSD)[2].  UNCLOS II convened in Malta to discuss territorial seas and fishery limits, however, the convention ended without agreeing upon a new treaty[3].  Today, UNCLOS III has been accepted by 167 nations and the European Union, however, although the U.S. has agreed in principle to the convention, it has not been ratified by the U.S.[4].  In the last attempt for ratification in 2012, it failed due to the “breadth and ambiguity” of the treaty and because it was not in the “national interest of the United States” to give sovereignty to an international body.  Ratification was overwhelmingly supported by the Department of Defense and the U.S. shipping industry[5][6].

Traditionally, a nation’s territorial boundary was established as a three-mile belt along its coastline based on the distance that a cannon could shoot a projectile.  All waters beyond the three-mile limit were considered international territory.

Today, the SCS is a possible flash point for confrontation over unresolved issues of the UNCLOS III between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), its neighboring states which have joined to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the U.S.  The islands in the SCS remained largely uninhabited until the mid-1970s when the PRC began to lay claim to a number islands and shoals which were claimed during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty in 1405 and later claimed by the PRC in what has come to be known as the “Nine-dash line[7].”  A map which was produced after World War II extended the PRC’s territorial waters claim deep into the SCS.  France challenged the PRC’s claim in 1931 by claiming the Parcel Islands and the Spratley Islands as territory of French-Indo China which then passed to the government of Vietnam after the Franco-Indo China War ended in 1954[8].

To understand UNCLOS III, it is important to first understand the definitions of terms such as the differences between an island and a rock.  The PRC began an aggressive land reclamation program where soil was dredged from the ocean bottom to create islands, which have standing under UNCLOS III, unlike rocks and shoals which are not recognized.  The islands created by the PRC can support military garrisons, home porting of both military and fishing ships, and extend the PRC’s territorial limits under the “archipelagos concept[9].”  Within UNCLOS III, this concept furthers a nation’s territorial rights by considering the seas between the mainland and the islands claimed by a nation as a connecting, rather than separating, element.  The PRC could therefore declare an emergency and suspend the “right of innocent passage” for its self-protection.

Significance:  Merchant shipping between Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas transverse the SCS and a PRC declaration of emergency which suspended the “right of innocent passage” would have major impact in global shipping.

Option #1:  The U.S. and coalition naval forces create a continuous presence in the SCS and actively challenge PRC naval activities and construction of and on islands and rocks in dispute.

Risk:  The PRC has openly harassed and attacked ships and aircraft of the U.S. and ASEAN member nations.  The PRC has established the SCS as its home waters and had several years to construct military garrisons on the islands which it created.  It is possible that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has placed surface to air missiles on the larger islands.  Additionally, the PLAN has aggressively modernized its ships and aircraft to include launching its first aircraft carrier.  As such, Option #1 may increase the possibility of a naval confrontation between the U.S. and the PRC.

Gain:  A naval coalition could provide protection for fishing and merchant shipping in the SCS and shape the narrative that the international community will not idly allow the PRC to control one of the most important sea lines of commerce.

Option #2   The U.S. and other nations could call for UNCLOS IV.  As evidenced by recent events in the SCS, UNCLOS III left many gray areas that are open for arbitration and the decisions lack the power of enforcement.  UNCLOS IV would address these gray areas and establish an enforcement framework.

Risk:  Major powers agreeing to a new UNCLOS could perceive that they have lost sovereign rights.  The UN lacks the ability to enforce treaties unless the major powers are onboard thus the text of a new UNCLOS would have to be carefully worded.

Gain:  In creating an agreement that is recognized by the international community, confrontation between the U.S., the PRC, and ASEAN may be avoided.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Harrison, James. July 5, 2007. Evolution of the law of the sea: developments in law -making in the wake of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

[2]  Treves, Tullio. 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea. United Nations.

[3]  Second United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 17 March – 26 April 1960 Geneva, Switzerland. , January 8, 2017. Washington School of Law, American University.

[4]  The Convention of the Law of Sea. U.S. Navy Judge Advocate Corps.

[5]  Patrick, Stewart M, June 10, 2012. (Almost) Everyone Agrees: The U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. The Atlantic.

[6]  Senators Portman and Ayotte Sink Law of the Sea. July 16, 2012. Portman Senate Office, Washington, DC.

[7]  Tsirbas, Marina. , June 2, 2016. What Does the Nine-Dash Line Actually Mean? The Diplomat.

[8]  Bautista, Lowell B. 2011.  Philippine Territorial Boundaries: Internal tensions, colonial baggage, ambivalent conformity.  University of Wollongong. New South Wales, 053%20Lowell%20B.%20Bautista-

[9]  Katchen, Martin H. 1976. The Spratly Islands and the Law of the Sea: “Dangerous ground” for Asian Peace. Presented at the Association of Asian Studies, Pacific Area Conference.  June.  Revised and published in the Asian Survey. 

China (People's Republic of China) David Mattingly Maritime Option Papers South China Sea Treaties and Agreements United States