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Foreign Affairs | Why India’s medical assistance to Djibouti matters

Strengthening strategic partnership in the coming years and perhaps establishing an eventual Indian military base in Djibouti is in the interest of both countries 

May 12, 2021 / 10:39 AM IST
Representative image

Representative image

India is battling the COVID-19 second wave and the instruments of State are engaged in this fight. However, despite this difficult challenge, key drivers of geopolitics have not waned in any way and warrant necessary response.

Two interesting developments in the last few days point towards the evolving shape of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean. First, China completed a pier at its base in Djibouti which would now enable China’s PLA Navy to host aircraft carriers at the base. Second, On April 28 India gifted 6,000 kg of medical assistance to Djibouti, despite the growing requirements of the domestic healthcare sector. Engagement with Djibouti is at the centre of these actions, and underscore the growing geopolitical salience of this tiny East African country.

For India, the importance of Djibouti has been rising continuously in the last four years.

Djibouti is located at the southern end of the Red Sea and has been a key relay point for the western navies going to the ‘Far East’. Djibouti, considered as the ‘most valuable military real estate in the world’, enjoys an enviable geostrategic location at the crossroads of West Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean. A foothold in Djibouti allows any power to monitor maritime traffic including energy trade passing through the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. Therefore, it has been courted by major global powers for setting up military bases.

As of now, France, the United States (US), Japan and China have established their military bases in Djibouti. India too has had demonstrated willingness to open a military facility in Djibouti. India’s latest medical assistance, primarily to treat malaria, pneumonia, severe infections, heart and allergy etc., needs to be seen in the context of evolving geopolitics in and around Djibouti.

In November, India sent food aid to the four African countries including Djibouti and the Indian naval ship that delivered the assistance made port calls in the region to conduct military diplomacy. China’s first overseas military base and the increasing engagement are primary drivers for India’s growing engagement with Djibouti.

Since 2017, China has not only opened and expanded its military base, but has also invested large sums of money for building infrastructure in Djibouti as parts of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has built a railway line connecting Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa with Djibouti and is developing the port of Doraleh. These projects hold strategic significance for China, Djibouti as well as for the wider region.

The new pier at the Djibouti naval base is likely to increase China’s ability to operate in the Indian Ocean region and project its growing power. With the upcoming naval base at Gwadar (Pakistan) and strengthening ties with Iran, China can pose difficult strategic questions for India in the Northern Indian Ocean.

As a response to these Chinese moves, President Ramnath Kovind paid a visit to this country in October 2017 and subsequently India opened its embassy in Djibouti in 2019. India’s growing strategic ties with France, the US and Japan are likely to allow the Indian Navy to access their bases in Djibouti. India has also played a key role in anti-piracy operations in the region and has recently been admitted as an observer of the Djibouti Code of Conduct.

However, in the post-pandemic world, India’s engagement with the region and with Djibouti will need to be augmented further to check rising Chinese influence.

For Djibouti, growing engagement of these major global powers allows it to diversify diplomatic partnerships. It also earns valuable foreign exchange by hosting the military bases. In the last few years, grave concerns have been expressed regarding the Chinese lending to Djibouti and its strategic implications. Sri Lanka is an example of a debt crisis generated by Chinese lending and it was forced to give up the port of Hambantota. Strategic analysts worry that the similar fate that may befall Djibouti and China will benefit greatly.

Djibouti has always been a paradox of stability and vulnerability. It is a stable country in an unstable neighbourhood. With political crises in Ethiopia and Somalia and the continuing war in Yemen, survival of Djibouti as a stable and independent country is necessary.

In this context, the victory of incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has been ruling since 1999, is a welcome news. India’s assistance was perhaps timed well to be delivered after Guelleh’s election victory. Strengthening strategic partnership in the coming years and perhaps establishing an eventual Indian military base is in the interest of Djibouti and India.
Sankalp Gurjar is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal.
first published: May 12, 2021 10:39 am