The United States-China Proxy War in the World's Blind Spot

An assault craft unit at Camp Lemonnier, a military base operated by the United States Navy in Djibouti ( Image )

An assault craft unit at Camp Lemonnier, a military base operated by the United States Navy in Djibouti (Image)

 

Over the last decade, China has established itself as a global hegemon of economic and geopolitical dominance, and their economic ties span across all continents, especially Africa. In fact, China’s economic prowess in Africa has grown so prominent that the country has a monopoly over the trade of donkeys in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mali, and Uganda, driving African donkeys to near extinction as Chinese demand for donkey gelatin has skyrocketed.

However, China has extended its sphere of influence far beyond the donkey industry. Today, China has arguably surpassed countries like Russia as the primary challenger to the United States.

The U.S. and China’s battle over hegemonic influence has grown particularly contentious within the Eastern African nation of Djibouti, threatening to spark a dangerous conflict unless all three countries can reach détente. Tensions have escalated surrounding Djibouti’s largest source of economic revenue, the Port of Djibouti, located at the crossroads between the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean.

In the early 2000s, piracy and terrorism near Djibouti led the United States to purchase the Djibouti-French military base Camp Lemonnier and lead the war on terror in the region. In 2016, China built its military base, PLAN, just a few miles away from Lemonnier. Additionally, Beijing offered Djibouti an economic partnership worth $3.5 billion, using the funds to improve the port’s infrastructure and prop up Djibouti’s dictatorial regime. China’s loans have drastically increased the nation’s foreign debt; today, Djibouti’s total external debt is equal to approximately 86% of its GDP, 80% of which is owed to China.

China’s intervention in Djibouti has unsettled the U.S. PLAN extends China’s reach into Eastern Africa, giving the regime a chance to expand its sphere of influence outside Asia. PLAN’s proximity to the American base makes the Pentagon wary that China could observe U.S. military operations.

Djibouti’s burgeoning debt to China not only threatens to destroy the nation’s fragile economy, but also sets the country up as the battleground of an escalating proxy war between the US and China. In 2004, China established a similar relationship with Sri Lanka, investing billions of dollars to improve port infrastructure. By 2018, Sri Lanka devoted 95% of its government revenue into repaying its foreign debt. Ultimately, Sri Lanka leased its Hambantota Port to China for 99 years in order to relieve part of its debt burden, giving China control over all investments and activity at the facility. Djibouti faces a similarly dire future; if they fail to repay their debt to Beijing, the country faces the possibility of having to sell their port to China as well, essentially leasing their entire economy for a century.

The U.S. has already begun setting up trade barriers with China; if the latter nation seizes the Port of Djibouti, Beijing could retaliate against the U.S.’s trade war by restricting access to the port. Additionally, both countries have established military bases within alarmingly close distance of each other, giving the U.S. the potential to retaliate to a Chinese threat with military aggression. In short, two aggressively hegemonic regimes have transformed Djibouti into a match that could spark an international conflict with unprecedented consequences.

As a case study of competition for hegemony between the U.S. and China, Djibouti’s situation illustrates the danger and harm resulting from conflict over key global trade infrastructure, paralleling the imperialist conflicts over key trade ports from past centuries. Left unchecked, camps like Camp Lemonnier and PLAN may turn into the next Guantanamo Bay, mutating from a mutual agreement to establish defense aid into sprawling military bases dominated by foreign governments. The United States and China will need to negotiate in good faith the sharing of strategic locations and infrastructure if they wish to keep others out of the crossfire.