AFRICOM Chief Warns of Chinese Control at Port of Djibouti

DCT (file image)

Published Mar 15, 2018 3:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

After terminating DP World's concession for the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) in February, the government of Djibouti says that the strategic facility will remain in state hands, at least for now. American lawmakers have expressed concerns that DCT could be transferred to a Chinese terminal operator, which would be a troubling development for U.S. interests in the region. 

"There is no China option and no secret plans for the Doraleh Container Terminal," Djibouti inspector general Hassan Issa Sultan told Reuters this week. He said that the facility is now operated entirely by the government. 

Djibouti's strategic location on the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb makes it an attractive site for foreign military forces. It is home to Camp Lemmonier, the primary U.S. special forces base in the Horn of Africa and the largest U.S. military installation on the continent. In addition, Djibouti leases out space for the Japan Self Defense Force, the French Foreign Legion and (soon) the Saudi military.

In November, the PLA Navy became Djibouti's newest military tenant when it opened a naval "support" facility near Doraleh. Despite the deployment of warships and military personnel to the site, China insists that “the Djibouti base has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion."

China is also making multi-billion-dollar infrastructure investments in Djibouti. In the last few years, Chinese firms have announced or completed a new $600 million multipurpose port terminal, a $4 billion LNG export terminal, a $4 billion railroad and two new airports worth $600 million.

The arrival of Chinese interests in Djibouti is a matter of concern to the U.S. military. On Tuesday, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser (USMC) said that "we are carefully monitoring Chinese encroachment and emergent military presence" in Djibouti. He told the committee that American military forces in the country depend upon DCT for their supply chain.

"I'm very much concerned about this," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). "If China is successful in taking over the port of Djibouti, could they use that control to threaten U.S. access and our broader freedom of navigation interests in that region, like the Red Sea and the Suez Canal?"

Waldhauser replied that two out of five terminals at Djibouti's seaport - the new Chinese naval base and the Doraleh Multipurpose Port - are currently run by the Chinese. The other three include an Emirati-run petroleum terminal, which supplies fuel for American forces and American military aircraft; the "old port;" and DCT, which is now government-run. 

"In our discussions with the Djiboutian government, they have indicated that they will run [DCT] for the next six months and then determine where it will go in terms of sale or [national control]. The container port, basically all of the supplies that come into Djibouti, whether it's spare parts, whether it's provisions, anything that comes to Djibouti comes through that port, so that port is used quite a bit," Waldhauser said.