Djibouti: the Berlin of the New Cold War?

The little-known quasi-microstate, strategically located in front of the southern counterpart of the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, has become the only country with direct military interface between the United States and China.

‘I absolutely believe there needs not to be a New Cold War.’ These are the words that US President Joe Biden uttered on November 14th at his first ever face-to-face meeting as president with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali. The statement was, however, followed by a less reassuring reminder. The US President subsequently reiterated the superpower’s firm commitment to protecting Taiwan in case of Chinese invasion: ‘I made it clear that our policy on Taiwan has not changed at all.’ Indeed, however peacefully and comfortingly the dialogue between the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies may have taken place, there are significant tensions that could escalate more easily than it may be desirable to believe. Whilst Taiwan’s status is arguably the most heated issue, there are numerous other ignited disputes across the Indo-Pacific macro-region. Djibouti, which can be argued to be a ‘diorama’ of the gloomy perspective of a future Second Cold War, is a prime example of these. Ever since China established its first military base on foreign soil in the small African country in 2016, joining five other military bases and the militaries of eight different countries, including the United States, considerable tension has arisen.

The background

The country today known as Djibouti originated from the territory colonised by France in the Horn of Africa, called back then French Somaliland. The country’s independence was not granted until 1977, and the government was formed by the only ruling party at the time. This, however, solely represented the Issas, the dominant ethnic group of Somali origin, constituting 70% of the country’s population. The remaining 30%, made up of the Affars, was completely marginalised, thus triggering inauspicious tension within the newborn country. In 1991, after neighbouring countries’ authoritarian governments were overthrown, the FRUD (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy), which was mainly made up of the Affar minority, planned attacks on the Djiboutian government.

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