US on collision course with China in the Red Sea
By: Abukar Arman
Two major developments in Somalia and Djibouti have attracted international media attention recently. John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit Mogadishu, whilst Chinahas negotiated the construction of a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti.
These two “symbolic” and substantive developments represent both an opportunity and a challenge for US geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
The contemporary US foreign policy which is hardwired on counter-terrorism posturing has been on a losing streak in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, to name but a few. In the Horn of Africa, it is facing some serious challenges: China’s chequebook diplomacy, Ethiopia’s hegemonic adventures and the indirect effect of the Arab Spring.
Touchdown in Mogadishu
Kerry’s trip to Mogadishu came in an election year when the Democratic frontrunner was being accused of foreign policy recklessness, and at a time when the State Department is too cautious to even say when the American embassy might open there. As such, the visit was more than a symbolic gesture; it was a strategic one, the poor timing notwithstanding.
Contrary to some Somali and American media headlines that were quick to claim that Kerry’s historic touchdown in Mogadishu was an expression of US confidence and a “show of support” to the IGAD/Ethiopia-led balkanisation known as the Federalisation Process, the impetus driving the trip was geopolitical in nature. At the airport compound, days after concluding the latest of the balkanisation conferences in Garowe, Puntland, Kerry met with four Somali presidents and one prime minster, though not his Somali counterpart.
So what was on the agenda? Were all those actors on the same page? Ironically, it really did not matter. The trip was about a place holder; an affirmation that the US is still interested in Somalia and is waiting anxiously for competent partners who know what they want and what they have as leverage.
In a 5 minute pre-recorded video that was intended to bypass the seemingly ragtag group of “leaders” that he was scheduled to meet, Kerry spoke to the people. “[The US is] focused on… steps that must be taken on Vision 2016 [election] to advance Somalia’s development as a unified, federal state,” he told the Somalis. “We all have a stake in what happens here in Somalia.”
While Kerry is right on the latter, supporting a “unified” Somalia governed through a clan-based federal system of ever-descending allegiance is a bloody pipedream. The nation formerly known as Somalia is more divided today than ever before as a result of such dichotomous combination.
As erratic as its foreign policy toward Somalia may have been, America seems to have realised that its policy towards the East African state is part of the problem, and that the current politicians there have indicated that they neither think nor function as leaders of a single nation. Directly or indirectly, each one of them is committed to keeping politics at the clan level, or more bluntly, at the gutter level, where geostrategic negation that could benefit both nations is utterly impossible.
China’s chequebook diplomacy
China now has over $200 billion invested in Africa; it’s a significant financial interest that may explain why Beijing not only has economic, but “political, and military deals with a number of African states.” Djibouti is one of those states and China has invested $9 billion there.
On the one hand, the latest venture might underscore a consistent survival-oriented strategic pattern in which Djibouti – a tiny strategic country located in arguably Africa’s toughest neighbourhood – partners with any willing power that could empower it economically and security-wise. On the other hand, it could prove to be a counterintuitive enterprise that impacts profoundly on the balance of power in one of the most important strategic waterways and thus ensure geopolitical advantage to China over the rest.
Against that backdrop, the shocking part is not that Djibouti is willing to become the first nation to host two competing superpower “frenemies”, but that China is confident enough to set up a military base right next to the US, France and Japan in the tiny Horn of Africa state.
The hegemon of the Horn
Meanwhile, as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is set to face the security threats emanating from Al-Shabaab’s party-balloon-effect, it certainly risks a mission creep. Such an outcome, needless to say, would automatically boost the strategic position of Ethiopia, the only country with the military might, devout cronies and political will to engross Somalia or feast on it a few bites at a time.
In the past two decades, Ethiopia has proven that it’s the master of projecting itself as a problem-solving nation. Whether one gets its diplomatic façade that I refer to as Injera Diplomacy or its predatory side depends on Ethiopia’s immediate hegemonic interest. Injera is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread served with a variety of meat and vegetable stews. With it one can easily scoop much of the stew one bite after another without dirtying one’s hand.
Make no mistake, Ethiopia is a stakeholder in the Djibouti and China deal. As a landlocked nation with a growing economy, it is counting heavily on China’s scheduled project to expand Djibouti’s sea port and has recently purchased three merchant ships that are docked there. It has been making its chess moves, mindful that, sooner or later, its policy toward Somalia will collide with America’s strategic interest in that country. Ethiopia not only offers economic incentive to Djibouti and political clout within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), it also grants its neighbour reassurances in dealing with future threats that may emanate from the ethnically-Ethiopian Djiboutian Afar community which makes-up a significant proportion of the population.
Geopolitics and geostrategy
In January 2010, “US officials and the Yemeni government agreed to set up a military base in Socotra to counter pirates and Al-Qaeda.” Socotra has a rare combination of strategic geographical location, minimal population and remoteness from media attention and scrutiny.
Now, with a hybrid political-sectarian wildfire raging in the Gulf of Aden and the spectre of the Houthis gaining the upper hand and subsequent looming of direct Iranian influence in Yemen, the US is standing on thin ice in terms of its strategic maritime position and influence. A unified and sovereign Somalia could be a significant factor in tipping the strategic balance of power both in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
The next leadership team will have to be mindful of the importance of cultivating a strategic partnership with the US; it is the only way to protect Somalia from neighbourhood political predators. However, such a partnership could only happen with a new policy from Washington towards Mogadishu.
Abukar Arman is a former diplomat and a foreign policy analyst. You may follow on Twitter: @4DialogSK