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U.S. Commander Interview Released Regarding Djibouti's Illegal Seizure of Doraleh Port Terminal

July 7, 2018

Djibouti's actions in illegally seizing control of the Doraleh port terminal by presidential decree are of major concern to the U.S. government, based on just-released documents from Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The port appears to be about to be turned over to the Chinese government -- as a gift.

Djibouti recently illegally seized control of the Doraleh port terminal by presidential decree, and some reports indicate Djibouti plans to gift the facility to the Chinese government. Congressman Byrne fears this aggressive expansion into Africa could hinder U.S. military and intelligence efforts to operate in the strategic choke point in the Horn of Africa.

Djibouti is home to the only permanent U.S. base on the entire African continent and hosts roughly 4,000 military and intelligence personnel.

Byrne on March 6, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis outlining his concerns, and he also questioned General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, about China’s actions in Africa and how it could impact the United States.

Congressman Byrne said: “I am deeply troubled about recent Chinese actions in Africa and efforts to expand their influence in the region. Reports that Djibouti plans to gift a major port to the Chinese government could negatively impact the ability of U.S. military and intelligence officials to conduct critical counterterrorism operations. I encourage our military leaders to monitor the issue closely to ensure that any actions will not negatively impact our servicemembers or our important economic, military, or diplomatic efforts throughout Africa.”

The full text of Congressman’s letter can be found below:

Dear Secretary Mattis:

Last week, the Republic of Djibouti illegally seized control of the Doraleh port terminal by presidential decree.  According to reports, Djibouti plans to gift the facility to the Chinese government.  While Beijing’s aggressive expansion into Africa is not new, I am concerned our military and intelligence assets and ability to operate in this strategic choke point are increasingly under threat due to China’s growing influence with President Guelleh’s government.

As you well know, Djibouti is a key location for U.S. power projection and operations.  According to the Department of Defense, Camp Lemonnier is the only U.S. permanent base on the entire African continent and is “essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”  The base hosts 4,000 military and intelligence personnel and serves as a key outpost for counterterrorism operations targeting AQIP, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and ISIS.   Home to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), Djibouti hosts Special Forces, UAVs, helicopters, planes, and a 150-member rapid response force.  Established in the wake of the fatal attack on our mission in Benghazi, this unit is tasked to support and protect U.S. diplomatic personnel working in austere environments across the region.  

With these sensitive operations based out of Djibouti, I am troubled by President Guelleh’s decision to allow the Chinese to obtain land to build a massive base just miles from Camp Lemonnier.  Roughly the size of New Jersey, Djibouti is the only country in the world to host both a U.S. and Chinese naval base.  With the completion of Beijing’s first foreign military base, Djibouti is primed to host up to 10,000 troops from China – more than double the U.S. presence.  As confirmed by AFRICOM commander General Thomas Waldhauser, this is the closest to a U.S. installation that a rival has been able to build a base, raising significant “security concerns.”                                   

President Guellah’s willingness to accommodate China is further illustrated in recent reports requesting U.S. forces leave the port town to make way for the Chinese.  Many in Congress, the intelligence community, and military have warned of the impact this growing foothold will have in the region.  During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on February 27th, CENTCOM commander General Votel confirmed “the new military base and port allow China to project forces more permanently within the region and influence strategically valuable trade waterways.” 

However, China’s purchase of influence doesn’t stop at the port.  Beijing has financed two international airports, a rail line linking Djibouti and Ethiopia, and a new presidential palace for Mr. Guelleh – rumored to be “free of charge.”  Improper bilateral business dealings in the region represent such a challenge, AFRICOM addressed them in its 2017 posture statement: “Whether with trade, natural resource exploitation, or weapons sales, we continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency and good governance. These competitors weaken our African partners’ ability to govern and will ultimately hinder Africa’s long-term stability and economic growth, and they will also undermine and diminish U.S. influence.” It is becoming clear what Chinese influence has bought today.  The concern is what will it buy tomorrow.

If Djibouti is willing to confiscate a port terminal operating under a legal 30-year agreement, what is to stop President Guelleh from reneging on the twenty-year lease the U.S. signed in 2014 for Camp Lemonnier?  The growing correlation between the billions spent by Beijing and actions taken by Djibouti harmful to the interests of the U.S. and our allies raises serious questions.  In his 2015 Foreign Affairs piece “China Comes to Djibouti: Why Washington Should be Worried”, China scholar Dr. John Lee provides a prescient answer: “Money talks, especially in small and underdeveloped states run by authoritarian governments such as Djibouti—and soon Beijing, not Washington, may have the strongest voice.”  

Your April 2017 visit to Djibouti sent a strong signal about the strategic significance and need for a robust U.S. presence.  I appreciate your statements highlighting the need for long-established international norms to be followed in and around the increasingly congested country.  As you engage your Djiboutian counterparts, I respectfully request you continue to ensure our presence and ability to operate unimpeded are respected.

Thank you for your steady leadership of the Department and continued selfless dedication to our country.

Bradley Byrne Member of Congress

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