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Expanding Japanese Military Presence in Djibouti: Challenging the Growing Chinese Security Framework
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In recent months, maritime disputes in the East China Sea have served as a hotbed for rising Sino-Japanese tensions. However, China’s growing geostrategic influence in regions beyond its maritime door step has catalyzed the development of a Sino-Japanese competition that has risen beyond regional levels.

Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative has sought to expand the global reach of Chinese trade partnerships, particularly through Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. This reinvention of China’s 21st century foreign policy represents an expanded involvement on an economic level in many growing markets with the concurrent creation of a global security framework more beneficial to Chinese geopolitical interests.

On the whole, the evolving geopolitical goals of a more globally reaching Chinese grand strategy have impelled a more internationally oriented response on the part of Japan. Heightened involvement in international security and peacekeeping has been a focal policy point of the Abe administration and the implementation of such actions have been catalyzed by the pressing need to match the swift rise of Chinese influence.

The establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti beginning in the spring of 2016 best illustrates the augmented capacity of Chinese power projection. Specifically, the military base on the Horn of Africa allows for the Chinese military to provide direct protection over important maritime trade routes which form the critical “sea road” aspect of the OBOR initiative.

In response, the Abe administration in October 2016 has recently announced its plan to expand its existing military base in Djibouti, a move with the purposes of increasing Japan’s contribution to anti-piracy efforts, ability to evacuate citizens from conflict zones, and most importantly, to match the capacity of Chinese power projection in a strategic region of the globe. The expansion of the Japanese base in Djibouti, which was first established in 2011, would include an increase in the area of leased land allowing for additional Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) personnel and aircraft to be stationed at the base, according to a recent report from Reuters.

The reasoning behind Japan’s expansion of the Djibouti military base is captured by the Abe administration’s December 2013 National Security Strategy which laid out the necessity to, “realize an international order and security environment that are desirable for Japan.” The implications of this statement are that Japanese foreign policy under the Abe administration will seek to break away from the historically omnidirectional diplomacy policy of post war Japan. While the statement itself may seem broadly based, the expansion of the Djibouti base in response to rising Chinese regional influence provides a specific illustration of how the Abe administration intends to apply its rebranding of Japan’s foreign policy.

This is not the first instance of Sino-Japanese competition in Africa. Earlier this year, Japan pledged to invest $30 billion dollars in infrastructure and private sector development in Africa, a counterbalance to China’s earlier pledge of $60 billion dollars to the continent. However, the expansion of Japan’s current military base in Djibouti is different in that it is one of the first examples of Japan challenging China’s growing international security architecture with military influence rather than fiscal investment.

In March of 2016, Chietigj Bajpaee explained in The Diplomat Magazine that the geo-economic rivalry between China and Japan has been amplified in recent years, particularly as both nations seek to expand their influence throughout Asian markets. Bajpaee argues that the nature of the Sino-Japanese rivalry at economic and geopolitical levels are “mutually reinforcing.” In essence, either nation gaining an advantage through strategic positioning in the economic domain has increasingly influential effects on regional geopolitical frameworks, and vice versa.

The separate Chinese and Japanese naval installations in Djibouti are a clear illustration of how this mutually reinforcing relationship between economic and geopolitical interactions has become a highlight of Sino-Japanese competition. In essence, for China in particular, expanded economic success in strategic markets around the globe lends itself to greater opportunities for more effective and permanent power projection. Ultimately, Prime Minister Abe’s push for a more internationally proactive Japanese foreign policy highlights his administration’s eagerness to challenge the nascent security frameworks which China has been seeking to establish. Insofar as China has utilized the OBOR policy to amplify its economic and geostrategic interests, the expanded Japanese installation in Djibouti is a small but telling example of the Abe administration’s attempts to mute, or at least dampen, the fast-growing reaches of Chinese influence.

Justin Cheung is a student in Stony Brook University’s 8 Year BE/MD Engineering Scholars for Medicine Program. He has been published in Soft Matter and ACS Macro Letters and has written previously for The Diplomat’s “China Power” section, focusing on the role of railroads in Chinese power projection in Central Asia. 

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