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Horn of Africa: military bases but for what reasons?

02.01.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
For the past two years, the non-African forces' determination to build military bases in the Horn of Africa is remarkable; with Djibouti at the centre of the debate over the military base 'market'.
Djibouti, which sits on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb (the maritime choke point between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal), has made virtue of its geography by creating a successful business model out of hosting foreign military bases. It now hosts naval and military forces from France, the US, Japan, Italy, China, and the Saudis, among other countries. Djibouti also sits astride the Bab el-Mandeb maritime thoroughfare, through which between 15% and 20% of international trade passes through every year. This is happening in the Horn of Africa, but is likely to spread further into the Indian Ocean.

Examining geopolitical strategies of all non-African countries establishing military bases in that region can help us understand the strategic importance of the Horn of African.

CHINA

The choice of Djibouti as location for its “first” military base in Africa, instead of Zimbabwe and Zambia where China had deeper relationships, was a source of controversy in the Beijing administration.

Considering military-strategic view, China appears to have a few expectations from Djibouti.

Firstly, it is the first overseas military base in Africa operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As can be easily understood, the Djibouti base is not just for the Horn of Africa or East African countries, but a center designed for ‘possible’ operations in the Indian Ocean. The facility is expected to significantly increase China’s power projection capabilities in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Secondly, China is obliged to have a navy in the region in order to prevent maritime thoroughfare in the Red Sea from being interrupted. The current risk factors are the pirates in Somalia and the war in Yemen.

Thirdly, China, which is largely dependent on Africa to maintain its own economic development, is determined to protect its investments in the continent. In this light, it is stated that Chinese soldiers in Djibouti could be used in counter-terror operations.

In parallel with these developments, Beijing’s growing political influence in Ethiopia, which has a strategic importance, is remarkable.

USA

China’s military and political influence in a fairly high geo-strategic region such as the Horn of Africa was the reason for the reaction of the American authorities. As a result, the Washington administration has established a permanent military base (Camp Lemonnier) in Djibouti. One of the main reasons for the United States’ military base in Djibouti is to maintain a balance of power against China in the region. Also, Camp Lemonnier’s scope includes support for military operations in Yemen and Somalia.

RUSSIA

Russia continues to establish new relations with its former allies in Africa as part of its “new African policy”. Eritrea appears to be the closest ally in the African horn. In this context, an agreement for a planned Russian logistics base in Eritrea, which would give it access to the Red Sea – was announced by the Kremlin.

Also, Djibouti authorities had previously rejected a Russian request to establish a military base “so that is not used in the conflict in Syria.”

Moscow has a few strategic reasons for its participation in the geo-strategic struggle on the African horn.

The simplest of these is against US hegemony as in most parts of the world to present their own ”as an alternative”. The other strategic approach is the protection of the allies against terror and American – French domination.

Apart from these classical approaches, Moscow has turned its attention to the discovery of gas reserves. In order to be a quarterback in this great struggle, Russia must have troops in the region.

FRANCE

France’s military strategy in the Horn of Africa is part of her East Africa policy. In order to control the Mozambique Channel, Madagascar, and Comorres, the Elysee administration has a military presence on Mayotte, Reunion and Scarred islands (Eparses islands).

The continuation of the French policy on East Africa and Indian sea, is related to its presence in the Horn of Africa. Thus, the Elysee administration has established a naval base in Djibouti (Naval base of Héron).

One of France’s primary objectives is to keep Chinese and Russian influence at the lowest possible level in the region. On the other hand, new gas reserves discovered in eastern Africa encouraged Paris to increase its interest in the region.

INDİA

The distinction between India and other non-regional countries is the influential  Indian diaspora. India already has serious political, commercial and cultural influence in the East Africa and Indian ocean.

India’s interest in the region is based on different specific reasons.  India which is expected to be the world’s second largest economy in the next 30 years, has already established historical ties with East African countries. In this perspective, India’s biggest rival in Africa is China.

In this context, India is preparing to construct a naval base on an island in Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, off East Africa to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. India’s second base in Africa will probably be on the horn of Africa.

SAUDİ ARABİA – UAE

Saudi Arabia is about to complete its first-ever foreign military base in Djibouti. The main task of the new military base will be to detect and intercept Iranian supplies to the Houthi militias passing through the Somali coast.

UAE can be dealt with in the same group as Saudi Arabia. The UAE establish a military base on the strategically important of coastline in the Somaliland port city Berbera. The task of the new military base like Saudi base in Djibouti is, to be able to detect and intercept Iranian supplies to the Houthi militias passing through the Somali coast.

The difference between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is that UAE has serious financial influence on the islands in East Africa and the Indian Ocean.The UAE has given considerable financial and political support to small  African states, such as  Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Comoros (which are Muslim-majority or have significant Muslim populations), and it is a large investor in East Africa.

UAE and Saudi Arabia are Turkey’s biggest rival in the region. The influence of Ankara on sub-Saharan African Muslims is at least as effective as the Gulf countries.

TURKEY

Turkey, Qatar-Gulf block is based on competition for very different reasons. Turkey’s strategy in the Horn of Africa, should be monitoring both Africa and in her relations with gulf countries.

As far as relations with Africa are concerned, Ankara “really” support regional stability. Accordingly, Turkey opened a military base to train the Somali army near Mogadishu in 2017.

In this same light, Sudan signed an agreement with Turkey for transferring Suakin island to Turkish navy. Suakin is located in a very strategic area off the Sudan in the Red Sea. The island is currently scheduled to host Turkish naval ships.

Another reason for Ankara’s military presence in the Horn of Africa is the geopolitical struggle with the Gulf countries.

As a result of ending Ankara’s strategic partnership with Washington, the Trump administration got partnership with Saudi and UAE in Africa. As a result of this decision, Gulf countries (Saudi Kingdom, UAE)and Turkey – Qatar competition emerged. In line with these developments, Ankara established bases in Qatar, Somalia and Sudan. The common feature of these bases is the serious threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the aim of Ankara is not to bring war, but to narrow the influence of the Gulf countries.

RELİGİON EFFECTS

Another reason for the fight is the “foreign” influence on the religious understanding of Muslim communities in the region. Here the Saudi Selefi-Wahabi type with Turkey’s classic moderate Islam models are in competition.

This is one of the reasons why Turkish President Erdoğan blames the Saudi Kingdom elites on the murder of journalist Khashoggi.

The military base-building race on the African horn may not be associated with these countries’ interests in Africa. For example, Russia is there to protect her interest against France and the United States in other regions.

The competition between Turkey and Gulf countries seem much more complicated and the effects will be felt for a long time in East Africa.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

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