Diplomatist Special Report: West Asia - North Africa 2018 WANA 2018 - Page 42

SPECIAL REPORT Why Djibouti is Strategically important for India & World: President Kovind’s fi rst presidential Visit to Djibouti & Ethiopia By MANDIRA BAGWANDEEN* I n early October, India’s newly elected president, Ram Nath Kovind, visited Djibouti and Ethiopia in his fi rst foreign trip since taking offi ce in July 2017. His choice of destinations suggests that India is fi nally taking the geopolitical and geostrategic signifi cance of the Horn of Africa seriously, and Djibouti in particular. The visit occurred against the backdrop of the recently established Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), an economic co- operation agreement between India and Japan that aims to connect African and Asian economies through new and ancient maritime networks. Strategic reasoning behind the visit to Djibouti While Djibouti, a country with few natural resources and a relatively small population of less than one million, does not seem to be an attractive destination for economic engagement, their geostrategic signifi cance grants them considerable attention from the world’s major powers. Wedged between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, Djibouti is afforded a natural ‘gatekeeper’ status. Thus, their location makes this small nation a strategic maritime asset for trade and connectivity. Aware of his country’s geostrategic signifi cance, Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh seeks to utilise his country’s location as a catalyst for economic growth. Guelleh reportedly hopes to mould Djibouti into a commercial logistics hub similar to Dubai and Singapore and, as such, will require large investments. India recognises that Djibouti is of key importance in achieving the actualisation of the AAGC. On 4 October 2017, Kovind and Guelleh agreed to establish foreign offi ce-level 42 •West Asia-North Africa bilateral consultations and signed an accord to this end. During the meeting, reference was made to maritime co- operation in the Indian Ocean and the possibility of Delhi contributing to capacity building in niche areas, such as renewable energy, which could generate local employment. By improving engagement with India, Djibouti welcomes another investor who can fund the country’s attempts at turning themselves into a major international trade hub, while India will be afforded the opportunity to be present in an increasingly vital Indo-Pacifi c maritime domain. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Djibouti In August 2017, China officially opened their first extraterritorial military base in the western part of the Chinese-built and owned port of Doraleh, Djibouti. In doing so, China joins the likes of France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US – all of whom have varying degrees of military presence in the country. China’s new military facility, which is the fi rst in Africa, raised concerns in India, as political observers perceived the development as a move of strategic intent in the Indian Ocean and a challenge to India’s ambitions of being the region’s ‘net security provider’. Even though China has insisted that they will use the base for logistical and support purposes – such as antipiracy initiatives and humanitarian missions in Africa – such statements have not allayed Delhi’s concerns, especially as China has, over the years, made overtures to project their military and political infl uence throughout the Indian Ocean. The Doraleh military base is of vital importance to Beijing and their Belt and Road Initiative (B&R), a network of land and maritime trade routes