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Christian Alonso

Djibouti, the little chessboard

- Djibouti is a country that does not have natural resources, but that has a unique geostrategic quality.

Djibouti, the little chessboard

Since colonial times, the African continent has distinguished itself as an engine for the development of European countries through the exploitation and looting of its natural resources. The biggest problems currently hovering over the continent are the result of the political and social transformations that colonization left behind. However, despite the fact that most of the countries that make up the so-called "black continent" have become independent entities, the truth is that foreign influence continues to reconfigure the African political structure according to their interests.

Most of the foreign interests poured into the African continent are focused on obtaining natural resources used for technological innovation and the economic development of external countries, however, there is a country that, without a meter of arable land, without oil or Natural gas has become an object of desire for different powers on the international scene, it is Djibouti.

The Republic of Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa. It does not have any exploitable natural resources and most of its land is desert, however, it has a quality that makes it invaluable, serving as a lookout for access to the Red Sea and connecting exports between the West and the Asian continent. Its privileged situation has characterized it as a geostrategic and important country for various countries around the world, who have directly interfered in the political formation and decimated the sovereignty of Djibouti.

This article aims to analyze the strategic importance that Djibouti has for different countries. Through the review of authors such as Brzezinski and Cohen, an exhaustive analysis will be carried out on the aforementioned categorization. Finally, an overview will be addressed about the importance that the African country will have in the reconfiguration of the world economy and how it will be used as a pivot for the expansion of foreign interests.

Djibouti and its surroundings.

The Republic of Djibouti (hereinafter referred to as Djibouti) is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It has a territorial extension of 23,200 km2 and is characterized by being the second smallest country in Africa, only above Swaziland (Montoya, 2015). It has land borders with Ethiopia to the west, Eritrea to the north, and Somalia to the south. However, only 28.5 km to the east is the Arabian peninsula, especially Yemen.

Figure 1. The Horn of Africa

The horn of Africa.

The soil, for the most part, is desert, causing agriculture to be almost non-existent. It does not have any significant natural resources, so most of its economy rests on serving as the point of entry and exit for exported and imported merchandise from Ethiopia. According to World Bank reports (2015) Djibouti has a population of 750,000 inhabitants, where more than a third are in a situation of illiteracy and poverty.

The African country is in place 151 of 178 studied in the Human Development Index, which makes it a country lacking in wealth. However, despite these negative connotations, Djibouti is considered the most stable country in the region, in political and social terms. Being an entry point for troubled regions such as the Sahel and the Middle East, its importance is growing more and more.

Djibouti, a historical approach

In 1839, the Frenchman Rochet D. Hericout visited the eastern region of Africa and made a detailed report on the importance of the occupation of territory for the control of global merchandise traffic. As a possible route that would connect the East and the West, and trying to reduce the transfer time it took for ships to go around the Cape of Good Hope, the French authorities decided to establish a colony, known as French Somaliland, in 1888.

For just over half a century this territory was part of the French colonies in Africa and underwent a series of transformations. In 1945 it changed its status as a colony and began to be considered as an overseas territory; In 1967, through a referendum in which the will and identification of the population with France were exposed, the name of French Somalia was changed to “French Territory of the Afars and Issas. However, the vindictive will of the future Djiboutis led them to promulgate their independence just ten years later, in 1977.

However, despite achieving its independence and consecrating itself as an independent State, the newly created Republic continued to depend on the protection of the metropolis, since, due to the expansionist threat of Siad Barre's Somalia, the Djibouti authorities signed an agreement which guaranteed the protection of Djibouti by the French, in exchange for establishing a military base in the country, Camp Lemonnier, which has been a key factor in understanding the problems raised.

The geostrategic factor

Saul Cohen (2003) in his work “Geopolitics. The geography of international relations”, considers that the highest level within the hierarchy of global structure is the “geostrategic realm”, and defines it as the “parts of the world large enough to possess characteristics and functions that influence globally and that satisfy strategic needs.” (p. 41) To this definition he adds a series of special characteristics, such as the control of strategically located land or sea passageways.

Although Djibouti may not fit the categorization of being a "big state" in terms of spatial longitude, the truth is that its geographical position has caused this small country to be considered as a position of vital importance for the development of trade through world level.

Djibouti is one of the sentinels of the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a geographical feature barely 115 kilometers wide that links the Red Sea to the north, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to the south, and through which more than half of the trade between the European Union and Asia. In addition, about 30,000 oil tankers cross its waters annually, reflecting in just over 30% of the exports carried out by Asia towards Western countries (Sánchez and Palacián, 2018, p. 9). . Therefore, the control of said strait is of vital importance for various countries, among which are China, the United States, France, Italy and Japan, who through the establishment of military bases on Djibouti territory have secured a strategic position with regarding his opponents.

Figure 2. The Strait of Bab el Mandeb

Source: Actualidad RT, "Six maps that will help to better understand the current situation in Yemen".

Strategic players in Djibouti

Brzezinski (1997) considered that within global geopolitics there were States with outstanding capabilities that always positioned them one step ahead of their namesakes. He called them the "geostrategic players" and defined them as "those States that have the ability and will to nation to exercise power or influence beyond its borders.” (p.40)

Following Brzezinski's logic, Djibouti is a clear example of a country decimated by the influence of different geostrategic players. Five of the most powerful countries in the world are located in its small territorial space, four belonging to the G-7 and an economic power that has launched to conquer the dark continent.

Through the establishment of military and scientific bases, China, the United States, France, Italy and Japan are disputing control of one of the most important straits for world trade, and which will become, in the near future, a pivot capable of granting a relevant position within the international scene for those who manage to control it.


Camp Lemonnier, the first military base established in Djibouti dates from 1977 and is the result of the independence process that culminated in the assistance and protection agreement by the French. It was ceded to the Americans after 9/11 and is currently inhabited by them.

However, with the arrival of the 5th Overseas Regiment, France reinforced its presence within the country. Nearly 1,900 French soldiers are housed at this base and it serves as the home of a few hundred soldiers of other nationalities, among which are German and Spanish, who participate jointly in the so-called "Operation Atalanta", a European project of regional security targeting the Sahel.

France has publicly stated that its presence in Djibouti is solely focused on facilitating stability missions within troubled territories such as Somalia and the Sahel region, however, "France's 2013 white paper on defense and security defined Djibouti as as one of its strategic priorities” (Sánchez and Palacián, 2018, p. 11) since this represents a large economic space for access to the East and Central Asian markets in terms of security.


The second country to establish itself as a tenant within Djibouti was the United States. The mission currently occupies the former military base of Camp Lemonnier. Nearly 6,000 members of the Marine Corps live inside it, and it has a facility specialized in drones. It is strategically located near the country's main airport and serves as a key point for US projection within the country.

The US military mission in Djibouti began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and with the declaration of the international fight against terror, proclaimed by the then President George W Bush. It was intended that, through Djibouti, the US army could have greater access to conflict zones in order to establish a regional peace, however, the truth is that the main reason that has kept the United States within the small country is the monitoring of commercial traffic passing through the Bab el-mandeb strait.


The third country to make an appearance in Djibouti was Japan. Its military base was inaugurated in March 2009 and is located less than 15 km from the country's main airport. It is considered one of the smallest bases in Djibouti territory, however, it is the first base of operations installed on the continent by the country of Japan.

One of the reasons given by the Japanese government to justify the presence of troops in said base is the supposed fight against piracy, as well as for the protection of compatriots in the surrounding countries, however, the real reason lies in acting as a counterweight to the empowerment that China has had in the region, thus fulfilling part of the objectives proclaimed by Shinzo Abe, to reformulate the Japanese defense policy, as well as the lost role of the Japanese army.


The Italian Amedeo Guillet support base was officially inaugurated on October 23, 2013. It covers an area of five hectares and is capable of housing 300 soldiers (Gaiani, 2013). It is located near the border with Somalia and has been a key point for the undertaking of the fight against piracy that plagues the region.

Despite the fact that its functions lie in the fight against terrorism and the rescue of hostages, the military base is also dedicated to monitoring maritime traffic, in order to protect Italian vessels that cross the waters and enter the narrow.


The last country to make a direct incursion into the African country was the Asian giant, China. With the inauguration of the Support Base of the People's Liberation Army, China has established itself as one of the countries with the greatest presence in the region. The base was inaugurated in 2017, it is the first extraterritorial military base of the Asian country and it is considered the largest military complex in all of East Africa, since it has the capacity to house up to 10,000 troops.

The main reasons that led to its construction were the terrorist attacks in Mali, where three Chinese nationals died, as well as the outbreak of the Arab spring in Libya, which caused more than 36,000 Chinese citizens to be caught up in the conflict.

However, beyond what has been mentioned, there are many reasons that have led the Asian giant to enter the small African country. China, so far in the 21st century, has inaugurated investment projects with a wide variety of African countries. With the promise of infrastructure in exchange for natural resources, the Asian country has managed to bring countries like the Congo and Sudan into a state of complex interdependence.

The most recent Chinese project is the financing of the high-speed electric train that connects Addis Ababa with the port of Doraleh. As mentioned, Djibouti serves as the port of entry and exit of goods for Ethiopia, which is currently growing at an impressive level.

However, China not only protects its investments at the regional level, but also intends to control endless trade routes. Cohen (2003) considered that China's maritime projection was focused on Southeast Asia and Eurasia, however, it could be said that Chinese interests go beyond what the author anticipated.

China is strongly interested in the stability of the Aden region due to economic-energy relations with the Persian Gulf. Its presence in the Bab el-mandeb Strait gives it a unique opportunity to extend its presence in the Indian Ocean, thus fulfilling part of its project known as the "pearl necklace" which aims to create a great economic corridor between China and Europe through Central Asia and Africa.

The Chinese presence in Djibouti has caused discontent on the part of the United States and has caused the Djibouti government to find itself between a rock and a hard place, having to opt for one of the two powers and do without the other.

Figure 3. Foreign military bases in Djibouti

Source: El País (2017), "Djibouti, an enclave to control the world".

Figure 4. The Chinese pearl necklace

Source: The World Order (2014), "China's pearl necklace: geopolitics in the Indian Ocean".

Djibouti, a projection into the future

Through the historical journey and the geopolitical analysis of Djibouti, two fundamental premises have been reached. The first of these is that Djibouti must take advantage of its geographical potential to consolidate itself as a benchmark country at the regional level. It is possible that through the use of infrastructure investments by China and the United States, it can become a developed country with strong economic growth.

The second premise is to reduce inequality and the wide range of wealth distribution in order to increase the Human Development Index and be a reference at the continental level on the eradication of poverty. It should be noted that what was said years ago by the former Chief of the Italian Defense Staff, Luigi Binelli Mantelli (2013) where he stated that "Djibouti is destined to be more important and strategic than Suez or Gibraltar" every day becomes more relevant .


    Arancón, F. (12 de mayo de 2016). Yibuti, el centinela de Bab el-Mandeb. Obtenido de El Orden Mundial:

    Brzezinski, Z. (1998). The grand chessboard. Basic Books.

    Cohen, S. (2003). Geopolitics. The goegraphy of international relations. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Damon, A. S. (27 de mayo de 2019). China and the United States face off in Djibouti as the world powers fight for influence in Africa. Obtenido de CNN:

    Montoya, F. (22 de diciembre de 2015). Djibouti. Asentamiento estratégico internacional. Obtenido de IEEE:

    Oladipo, T. (17 de junio de 2015). Yibuti, el pequeño país donde las grandes potencias quieren tener bases militares. Obtenido de BBC Mundo:

    Rodríguez, A. (14 de mayo de 2018). El lugar que pocos saben ubicar pero en el que toda potencia quiere estar. Obtenido de La Vanguardia:

    Sánchez, P., & Palacián, B. (09 de mayo de 2018). La importancia geoestratégica de Yibuti. Obtenido de IEEES:

    Torralba, C. (19 de agosto de 2017). Yibuti, un enclave para controlar el mundo. Obtenido de El País:

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