Analysis part of its operations, and the base it established in Djibouti in 2011, is home to nearly 200 Japanese personnel.
The rationale behind the military base, which was set up by the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF), was to enable Japan to support international naval operations. Since 2013, three Japanese officers have served as commanders of a multinational force committed to anti-piracy operations, with the primary aim of protecting maritime shipping. The Bab-el-Mandeb is a vital path for Japan’s international trade, and Japan imports the majority of its energy needs from Middle Eastern oil and gas exporters.
Japan also conceives of African waters as a key part of its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategic vision, which some analysts describe as an effort to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“When you cross the seas of Asia and the Indian Ocean and come to Nairobi, you then understand very well that what connects Asia and Africa is the sea lanes,” said Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe in Nairobi in 2016, when he unveiled the initiative. “What will give stability and prosperity to the world is none other than the enormous liveliness brought forth through the union of two free and open oceans and two continents.” Complex situation CTF-151 (Combined Task Force 151), the international mission that Japan contributes to, protects maritime shipping in two ways. First, the forces are deployed in convoys to protect ships passing through troubled waters. Second, the ships also work on ‘zone defence’, or patrolling the large area of the Indian Ocean, with a portion abutting Africa from the Sinai Peninsula to the 10th parallel, which runs just north of Tanzania’s border with Mozambique.
“Anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia provide a low risk means for the Japan Self-Defence Forces to stay engaged in meaningful multinational operations,” says Jeffrey Hornung, an East Asian
Affairs analyst with the RAND Corporation, “and offer continued justification for maintenance of Japan’s only forward operating base in Djibouti. It is the only country with whom Japan maintains a Status of Forces Agreement for the JSDF.”
Japan’s pacifist constitution means it is usually keen to avoid operations with a large amount of political risk. However, Japan’s deployment in the Horn of Africa may flout those rules.
The political risk in the region has grown with the war in Yemen. Iran-supported Houthi militants have been known to deploy free-floating mines in the Bab-elMandeb, part of the CTF-151’s operating area. The mysterious recent attacks on oil tankers heading to East Asia in another key waterway (the Strait of Hormuz), which have been blamed on Iran, attest to the complex situation.
Furthermore, Djibouti has been at the heart of the EgyptianSaudi-UAE-led embargo of Qatar, accusing the tiny Emirati state of having ties to Islamist groups.
The embargo was meant to punish Qatar but, arguably, no country has suffered more geopolitical damage than Djibouti.
Qatar responded to Djibouti’s action by withdrawing a roughly 500-strong Qatari peacekeeping force deployed to a disputed border region between Djibouti and Eritrea. The sudden withdrawal benefited Eritrea, which seized the contested border region outright.
Above: The Japanese destroyer Samidare on patrol in the Gulf of Aden
Interlocking pieces As we reported in New African’s January issue, according to Awol Allo, a UK-based law professor and frequent commentator on Ethiopia and the Horn region, “In the last few years, the Horn of Africa has become a battleground where Middle Eastern rivalries are played out.
“Different groupings have engaged with the region in pursuit of their own interests. Some have been more successful than others, but the question for many is whether African countries are able to make these relationships work for them.”
The question now is whether Africa can control the forces unleashed and somehow extricate itself from the coils of external interests. We have also reported that in recent years, the US has gradually come to perceive the rise of China and Russia, and not terrorism, as the biggest threat it is facing in Africa and elsewhere.
“Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security,” said the then US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, in a speech outlining his country’s 2018 National Defence Strategy. “We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other.”
In news elsewhere, Turkey had plans to develop maritime facilities in Sudan, and as the protests against President Omar al-Bashir grew in March, a Turkish warship visited Port Sudan.
This is the same port that International Container Terminal Services Inc, a Filipino port operating company, quietly scooped up a contract for at the height of the protests against President Omar alBashir, despite the political turmoil in that country. On 23 April, just days after the toppling of Bashir, Sudan’s military rulers suspended the contract.
This is just one more example of the interlocking pieces that are increasingly coming together to create a climate of fear and uncertainty over the Horn and its hinterland. NA
26 new african july 2019