On 11 July 2017, China formally inaugurated its first-ever military base abroad, located in Djibouti. It signifies a paradigm shift in China’s sustained foreign policy of many decades, characterized by a firm political standing opposed to the idea of sending a single solider abroad during peacetime. Conversely, China also has a well-known reputation, among the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, as the leading contributor of troops to peace-making operations around the world mandated by the UN. Nonetheless, its latest move of launching a new military base in a foreign land indeed comes as unprecedented development seen against its long-standing indifference in establishing military bases abroad. The issue becomes more intriguing due to the fact that China’s newly launched military base is located in a region (the Horn of Africa) described by some experts as the most conflict-ridden part of the world since the end of WWII – at least in terms of frequency of armed conflicts (Shinn 2010). Hard-hitting questions are already emerging on how this development will affect (positively or negatively) the ever-fragile situation of peace and security in the Horn of Africa.

The development invites critical academic inquiry, using the theoretical framework of international security studies. As a discourse involving geopolitical considerations of one of the most influential countries in the world, the issue also needs to be analyzed, to some extent, from the viewpoint of international law, thus necessitating the adoption of an interdisciplinary methodological approach. By reason of its “freshness,” the topic is a hitherto under-researched area. Understandably, it points to an apparent gap in extant academic literature that needs to be filled even when the development under discussion is still at its very early stage. In the past, Africa-China relations were discussed predominantly in the context of the booming investment of China in Africa, often times analyzed in terms of comparative assessment of the economic development resulting from China’s aggressive financial flow to Africa. The proposed research will go beyond this economic analysis of Africa-China relations, making a conscious emphasis on the unfolding paradigm shift in China’s foreign policy.

Some of the key issues that will be examined in this research project include: the extent to which China’s latest move in the Horn of Africa can be seen as a harbinger of its “centenary dream” of becoming a superpower and a respected international actor, or as another instance of new international intervention in the Horn of Africa. It needs to be remembered that the Horn of Africa is not only closely influenced by, but also influences, developments that happen on the other side of the Red Sea, most notably the Arabian Peninsula – a geographic region that consists of Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and parts of Jordan and Iraq. Djibouti is perhaps the closest African country to the Arabian Peninsula from all other countries of the Horn of Africa. As such, it occupies a critical geopolitical role for what happens on both sides of the Red Sea (the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and/or the Arab World). Developments related to the new military base of China in Djibouti are already garnering increased academic interest, and this research project aspires to contribute some insights to on-going discourses on the subject matter.   

Dr. Daniel Mekonnen is the Director of the Eritrean Law Society (ELS). More information on the website of the African Studies Centre Leiden.

Interviews with Daniel Mekonnen

  1. “The ‘Politics of Room 20’: Comparing the Scrutiny of Syria and Yemen by the UN Human Rights Council,” Lecture Given at the Research Project on “Striking from the Margins:  Religion, State and Disintegration in the Middle East,” Centre for Religious Studies, Central European University, 12 April 2018 
  2. Interview with Al-Jazeera, on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, 8 June 2015 
  3. Interview with BBC, on the 25th Anniversary of Eritrea’s Independence, 24 May 2016 
    goo.gl/8Vcz3i (starting from 03:14 of the broadcast);
  4. Interview with RT TV, on EU Development Cooperation and Eritrea, 18 November 2015 
  5. Interview with TRT TV, What Will Peace with Ethiopia Mean for Eritrea?, 13 July 2018