By Mandira Bagwandeen, Independent Analyst
Analysis in brief | The newly elected Indian president’s visit to Djibouti and Ethiopia is indicative of India’s readiness to develop closer economic and strategic ties with the Horn of Africa, especially against the backdrop of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region.
- India recognises that the Horn of Africa, especially Djibouti, will be instrumental in realising the actualisation of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor
- With China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region, India is aware of the need to also expand their presence in key maritime trade and connectivity regions to keep China in check
- Unable to compete with China’s massive infrastructural investments in the Horn of Africa, India will have to draw on their strengths and present themselves as another investment partner
In early October, India’s newly elected president, Ram Nath Kovind, visited Djibouti and Ethiopia in his first foreign trip since taking office in July 2017. His choice of destinations suggests that India is finally taking the geopolitical and geostrategic significance 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 significance 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 significance, 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 office-level 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-Pacific 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 first 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 influence 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 that will connect China to Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, South East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The base will not only be used to combat piracy in the region but will also guard the trade route linking Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal, which China is currently upgrading.
Through various infrastructural investments, the significant importance that China has bestowed on the Horn of Africa for their B&R plans has become apparent. Beijing’s infrastructure development in the region preceded the launch of the B&R in 2013. However, following the establishment of the China-centred initiative, infrastructure projects have gained momentum, especially in Djibouti. In addition to the US$ 590 billion military base, China has reportedly signed 14 infrastructural agreements with Djibouti, totalling approximately US$ 9.8 billion. This includes the construction of a massive free trade zone, the expansion of Port Doraleh, two new airports, a water pipeline project from Ethiopia and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway. The substantial infrastructural investment is, no doubt, welcomed by Djibouti, however, as precedent has shown, Chinese deals are not unlike deals by other nations in Africa and have always been of a ‘quid pro quo’ nature. Djibouti is no exception. By including Djibouti in China’s B&R plans, China will subsequently hold a strategic position in the geopolitics of North Africa, Europe and the Middle East – a sphere historically dominated by the US.
Checking China’s presence in the Indian Ocean region
While China’s military base and their investments in the Horn of Africa are not intrinsically provocative, the geopolitical implications for India are considerable. China’s expanding of their maritime and political influence in the Indian Ocean has placed India on edge, feeding into India’s fears of strategic encirclement and challenges to their perceived status as the guardian of the region. In efforts to check China’s growing influence in the region, India seems to be aware that they need to strengthen relations with states in and around the Indian Ocean. With the Horn of Africa holding such strategic importance, India is recognising that they need to expand their presence in the region and develop robust partnerships. Unlike China, India’s investments in the Horn of Africa are paltry and reflective of their fragile relationship with the region.
Although Djibouti opened an embassy in Delhi in 2004, India has no diplomatic presence in East Africa. Furthermore, India’s relations are based on a connection to their diaspora and limited trade links. Nevertheless, the recent visit from the Indian head of government is indicative of India’s desire for better economic and strategic engagement with Djibouti and the wider Horn of Africa region. While India is unlikely to compete with China’s gargantuan infrastructural investments, India can strengthen relations with Djibouti by drawing on their strengths by providing skills, constructing educational and medical facilities, as well as by promoting technology transfers. In this regard, India can present themselves as an alternate Asian investment partner and can begin to carve out a presence in the region, which could, if the strengthening of relations continues to be prioritised, see India set up their own military presence in the region.
 Mandira Bagwandeen is an independent analyst and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Cape Town.
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