BY ROBBIE COREY-BOULET | WPR
Just weeks after sending troops to its first overseas military base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, China has come forward with a curious offer: to dive headlong into a dispute that illustrates the complex rivalries of the Horn of Africa region.
In an interview with the Associated Press published July 21, Kuang Weilin, China’s ambassador to the African Union (AU), said China would consider sending peacekeeping troops to a border area contested by Djibouti and Eritrea. The dispute over the area, known as Ras Doumeira, dates back to the late 19th century, when Eritrea was colonized by the Italians and Djibouti was known as French Somaliland.
In 1996, the two countries “nearly went to war” after Djibouti accused Eritrea of shelling the region—a claim that was later retracted. In 2008, the situation became even more serious, with a military standoff leading to clashes that killed at least nine Djiboutian soldiers. The following year, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Eritrea, in part over its refusal to withdraw troops from the zone.
In 2010, however, both sides responded positively to mediation from Qatar, which turned the conflict into the latest vehicle for its freewheeling foreign policy. The full extent of what this mediation entailed was never made clear. One researcher, speaking to WPR on condition of anonymity, describes the affair as a kind of “black box,” noting that the agreement brokered by the Qataris was never officially made public. It only came to light when it was leaked by an Eritrean opposition website.
As part of the deal, Qatar sent in peacekeepers, and things had been calm until recently. But with the outbreak last month of a diplomatic crisis pitting Doha against a bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia, that is no longer the case.
After the Saudi-led group severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and began pressuring other countries to take sides, both Eritrea and Djibouti aligned themselves with Riyadh. In response, Qatar announced it was withdrawing its peacekeepers. “Qatar has been an impartial diplomatic mediator in resolving crises and disputes between brotherly and friendly countries and will continue to be a major player in the international community,” read the statement from the Foreign Ministry.
The potential consequences of this move soon became apparent. Within days, Djibouti had accused Eritrea of amassing troops in the disputed region and called for the AU to send in observers.
Analysts say that, as is often the case, it is difficult to know what exactly is happening on the disputed land, which is situated near busy Red Sea shipping lanes. Yet to understand why it has again become a flashpoint, the physical space is perhaps less important than shifting regional dynamics.
The sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009 were symptomatic of the country’s broader international isolation, which for a time was so total that the country is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s North Korea.” If anyone has benefited from this isolation, it’s Djibouti. For example, despite a costly Eritrean lobbying push in the early 2000s, Djibouti won out in the contest to host a U.S. military base in the Horn. Today, Djibouti is a crossroads for global military powers, housing bases for American, Chinese, French and Japanese forces.
Further, Djibouti’s economy got a boost following the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which caused Ethiopia to redirect trade previously passing through Eritrea to Djibouti’s ports. For this reason, “Djibouti has vested interests in the continued isolation of Eritrea,” says Awet T. Weldemichael, associate professor at Queen’s University in Ontario.
However, there have been signs in recent years that Eritrea’s isolation is easing. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has involved his country in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, allowing the United Arab Emirates to run operations out of a military base constructed at the port of Assab. In addition to receiving what is believed to be hundreds of millions of dollars for the long-term lease, this alliance with powerful Gulf nations doubtless makes Djibouti and Eritrea nervous.
Second, the high volume of migrants fleeing Eritrea has made European countries, which are desperate to curb migration flows, more keen to engage with Afwerki.
According to this reading, Djibouti, concerned about the prospect of a rehabilitated Eritrea, is seizing on the border dispute to remind the world of the Afwerki government’s erratic behavior and penchant for aggression and interventionism—as evidenced, to give just one example, by its meddling in the Somali conflict. If this is the case, Djibouti has at least partly succeeded: The latest flare-up immediately became the subject of a meeting of the U.N Security Council, which issued a statement calling for a peaceful resolution.
Djibouti’s effort is facilitated by the fact that Eritrea rarely misses an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot diplomatically, and its military could well be engaging in reckless behavior at the border. Up to now, moreover, the country has been far from transparent in its dealings with Djibouti, and has been reluctant to cooperate on long-standing disagreements over prisoners of war.
At a summit meeting this month, the AU announced that Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui would take up the issue, though Eritrea, suspicious of Ethiopia’s influence at the AU, did not seem wild about this idea. Nevertheless, Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, an independent Horn of Africa analyst, says a fact-finding mission will likely prepare some kind of report, which will then be presented at a future summit—all with an eye toward getting a peacekeeping force back in place. He says this process could take “six or eight months or even longer,” but that the security situation is unlikely to deteriorate significantly in that time. “I don’t think there will be anything in the immediate future that will trigger any escalation of the conflict,” he says.
As for who might actually contribute troops, there is a stark shortage of candidates. Every country that has been suggested seems to have a disqualifying link to one side or the other. Even China, despite its ties to Eritrea, could be seen as too close to Djibouti given the new military base.
Another unanswered question: What would be the benefits to getting involved? Putting boots on the ground would allow China to position itself as a power broker in a strategic neighborhood. But as Qatar discovered, the situation is resistant to progress, meaning a Chinese deployment would likely amount to spending large sums of money with little expectation of a payoff.
Indeed, while Doha has more pressing problems at the moment, when it comes to this particular spat, the ruling Al Thani clan may simply be happy to have found a way out.