Djibouti may not be considered one of the world's political hot spots, but the growing global media coverage of the small East African nation reflects its strategic importance to global powers, says a Hong Kong scholar.
Djibouti made headlines when Iran's Press TV reported that the country's government has decided to hand over a military base used by the United States to China, noted Simon Shen, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in an article published by Guangzhou's South Reviews magazine.
Washington denied the Iranian story, but it reflected Djibouti's growing influence. Sitting on the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea, Djibouti has been fought over by global powers for over 100 years because of a geographical position that offers control of inland East Africa and trade and supply routes by sea, Shen said.
Before World War II, Djibouti was a French colony, with the United Kingdom controlling Aden on the Arabian peninsula across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The small country, which remained under the protection of French forces after the war, later became a buffer zone between Ethiopia and Somalia, which sided with the former Soviet Union and the US, respectively, during the Cold War.
Djibouti gradually regained control of its domestic and foreign affairs under President Ismael Omar Guelleh, who was first elected to the post in 1999. Guelleh's efforts to introduce foreign aid and investment to build ports and a transportation infrastructure allowed the country to tap into its advantageous geological position, Shen said.
Guelleh also allowed the United States to set up its only permanent base in Africa at Camp Lemonnier, while the two countries and France worked together in the war in Afghanistan and in the fight against al-Qaida forces in North Africa.
In 2009, Djibouti signed an agreement with Japan, which set up its first overseas military base since the end of World War II in the African country.
With such interest in Djibouti shown by several countries, it was normal for Beijing to also pay attention, especially as China has become a major trade partner with the African continent, Shen said.
It was reported in May that Beijing planned to set up a base in Djibouti and China is enjoying growing influence there, while US forces have poor relations with local residents, according to Shen.
A base in Djibouti would give China the ability to better protect its fishermen threatened by pirates in the region's waters and shipments of oil from Africa and the Middle East, Shen said. As a gateway to East Africa, it is also a strategic point in the eastern section of China's Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives, Shen added.
A presence in Djibouti would also allow China to have a say in local affairs, as it already does in Sudan and South Sudan, which have close ties with Beijing, Shen pointed out.