Wednesday April 26, 2023
By Sankalp Gurjar
As the security situation in Sudan worsens, the importance of having a military base at Djibouti has been further underscored
A Sudanese anti-coup protester waves a national flag as people take to the streets of the capital's northern district of Khartoum-Bahri, on 17 September 2022 (AFP)
Sudan, the third largest country in Africa, is caught in a power struggle between two top generals. The ambitions and rivalry between the Sudanese Army, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary force Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by General Mohammed Dagalo ‘Hemedti’, are at the centre of the crisis. So far, 400 people have died and more than 3,000 people have been wounded in the violence in the capital, Khartoum. As the crisis appears set to continue, the major global powers are weighing options to evacuate their citizens from Sudan. In this context, the strategic importance of the military bases of major global powers at Djibouti cannot be overstated.
Djibouti is known as the ‘most valuable military real estate in the world’. It hosts the military bases of the United States (US), China, France, and Japan. The European Union (EU), too, has a presence in Djibouti. In contemporary geopolitics, Djibouti shot to prominence due to piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Piracy was at its peak during 2007-2012, which threatened global shipping and energy passing through the region. As the major global and regional players sent their warships to the region to fight the pirates, the need for a foothold in the region was felt. That is how China and Japan established their military bases in Djibouti.
The military foothold at Djibouti plays a key role in expanding and strengthening the strategic footprint of France, Japan, and China in the Western Indian Ocean.
This tiny East African country is located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. Djibouti lacks resources and instead survives on the rents paid by major global players for their military bases. The military foothold at Djibouti plays a key role in expanding and strengthening the strategic footprint of France, Japan, and China in the Western Indian Ocean. Russia, too, wanted to establish its military base in Djibouti but its request was rejected by the Djiboutian authorities. The US finds the base useful for a range of missions, from conducting anti-terror operations to protecting its interests as great power politics intensifies in the region. In fact, Djibouti is a window through which the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region could be observed.
Besides, for these major powers, military presence at Djibouti is useful for the evacuation of citizens trapped in the conflict zones in Africa. Djibouti’s proximity with conflict-ridden countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and its ability to provide access to one of the most important global maritime chokepoints, i.e., the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, underscores its strategic relevance. The location of Djibouti makes it easy to launch evacuation efforts via air and sea.
In the current crisis, the US announced that it is positioning forces at the military base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. As per the US Defence Department, it is “conducting prudent planning for various contingencies” and “deploying additional capabilities nearby in the region”. The purpose is “securing and potentially facilitating the departure of U.S. Embassy personnel from Sudan, if circumstances require it”. The US base at Djibouti, functioning as part of the Africa Command, has been operational since 2002. It is America’s only permanent military base in Africa. In the past, the US had re-positioned the special crisis response team of marines to the Djibouti base in 2013 when the crisis erupted in South Sudan.
Japan and South Korea have also announced plans to dispatch long-range transport aircraft for evacuating their citizens from Sudan. There are 25 South Korean citizens and 63 Japanese nationals living in Sudan. South Korea sent C-130 aircraft and 50 military personnel including medical staff; it will be on standby at the US military base in Djibouti. In the case of Japan, it too dispatched two transport aircraft, C-130 and C-2, and an aerial refuelling aircraft. The planes are carrying military personnel, vehicles, and other equipment that will be needed when the evacuation takes place.
Japan and South Korea have also announced plans to dispatch long-range transport aircraft for evacuating their citizens from Sudan.
The Japanese base, which was established when piracy was at its peak in the Gulf of Aden, has already proved its value as an important logistics support and transport hub for Japanese peacekeepers when they were deployed in South Sudan during 2012-2017. Moreover, in 2013, when terrorists attacked a natural gas plant in Algeria and killed 10 Japanese nationals, the base at Djibouti was useful for sending medical supplies. In 2018, despite the decline of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Japan expanded the base, recognising the strategic worth of the Djibouti base.
However, at the moment, evacuation from the air is seen as a risky option as the fighting is at its most severe in Khartoum and the international airport is closed. Germany has had to suspend its evacuation operations. Japanese Defence Minister, Yasukazu Hamada, has said that they will also consider other options to evacuate citizens. This means evacuating by land. However, the Sudan-Chad border is closed. The evacuation team may have to drive 840 kilometres to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Yet another option is to cross over into Eritrea. Both are fraught with risks as the drive to Port Sudan will take 12 hours and the routes are considered treacherous. Crossing into Eritrea is a difficult option as Asmara has been hostile to the US as well as the West in general. (Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Asmara has voted in support of Moscow in the UN Security Council and has taken a firm stand against the Western position.)
In the case of China, the base at Djibouti is its only overseas military base. The Chinese embassy in Sudan has said that it is gathering information about the Chinese citizens in Sudan and “will decide whether to evacuate Chinese nationals from Sudan after making a final judgment of the situation”. There are about 700 Chinese nationals in Sudan and if the evacuation takes place, China’s base at Djibouti will be immensely helpful. China has historically enjoyed close ties with Sudan and has been an important player in the Sudanese oil industry.
Both are fraught with risks as the drive to Port Sudan will take 12 hours and the routes are considered treacherous.
India has also set up a control room to monitor the situation in Sudan. India recognised the significance of Djibouti as a key hub for evacuation and rescue of citizens when, as part of ‘Operation Raahat’, it evacuated Indian citizens as well as citizens of 41 other countries trapped in Yemen in 2015. India had coordinated its rescue efforts from Djibouti. As of now, there are about 3,000 Indian citizens in Sudan waiting to be evacuated. The government has been preparing contingency plans to bring them home. Given that the Gulf countries enjoy considerable influence in Sudan, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has spoken with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the coming days, countries will be closely monitoring the fast-evolving security situation in Sudan. While the strategic establishments of US, China, Japan, South Korea, and India prepare for the evacuation of their nationals from Sudan, the importance of having a military base at Djibouti has been further underscored.
Sankalp Gurjar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Udupi, India.