Djibouti: The most valuable military real estate in the world

We had been driving around the streets of this African city for more than an hour, and my companion — an agent from the national intelligence service whom I will call Mohammed — was excited by the implications of what he had been showing me.
Strategically placed at the entrance to the Red Sea, commanding a large percentage of the trade and energy flows between Europe and Asia, Djibouti is home to more foreign bases than any other country. We drove by one of the four surviving French bases. The perimeter was wide, but the building immediately reminded you of an old Foreign Legion fort, with its run-down walls and picturesque watch towers.
What a contrast to the dark and menacing Chinese naval base I had visited the day before or the autonomous city in the desert that is Camp Lemonnier, the American base
who asked that an alias be used to protect his identity — must have sensed my bemusement and pointed out that another French base, on Cape Heron, is today more of a tourist resort for quiet swimming and barbecues than an armed camp.
“The French will never leave that one,” he said. “And if they do, it will be immediately taken up by the wealthiest families.”
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Welcome to “The Coming Wars,” where over the next few months we’ll examine a world where borders are becoming increasingly meaningless, but where rivalry and the potential for conflict remain undiminished.
As new powers rise and the formerly hegemonic West loses relative power, we are entering the first period in human history in which modern technology will be combined with a chaotic international arena, in which no single actor or group of actor is capable of imposing order.
The coming wars may be armed conflicts, but they could also take radically different forms: struggles to control infrastructure, propaganda battles, tech races in artificial intelligence and robotics, cyberwar, and trade and economic warfare.
Only one thing is certain: They will be contested by nations with deeply integrated economies and infrastructure across borders that are diluted, permeable and sometimes supple.
This column will take us to the most important hot spots, where we’ll talk to the decision-makers and reveal stories taking place behind the curtain. If the world is heading toward a major conflict or war, we need to think about what shape it will take and where it could plausibly start.
And what better place to begin than Djibouti?
As France — the first to maintain a military presence in the country — slowly abandons its bases due to budgetary constraints, others have been moving in. The United States recently opened a second base on Chabelley Airfield — unmentioned in its public list of overseas bases — after its drones interfered with air traffic at Camp Lemonnier.
The country hosts China and Japan’s only foreign military bases. There’s an Italian base too and Saudi Arabia is building one as well. Djibouti has made overtures to Turkey. And, according to Mohammed, (and later an second independent source) Russia has made inquiries.
India too is rumored to be considering the possibility of acquiring a block of the most prized military real estate in the world. If it does, every major global power will have a Djibouti footprint and the country will resemble a live model of state conflict in the 21st century.
During my stay in the city, I witnessed French and Japanese soldiers competing for the attention of the local prostitutes in the center nightclubs, and the Chinese and Americans using every opportunity to try to take pictures of each other’s equipment and logistics. Colonel Bogoreh — the top commander of the Djibouti Coast Guard — told me a revealing story: After Chinese sailors kept taking unauthorized photos of an American destroyer, he was asked to step in and provide some order.

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