The Chinese military is guilty of “irresponsible actions” toward American forces stationed at Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier on the Horn of Africa, a senior U.S. military intelligence officer said.
The home of U.S. military operations in the region and the biggest U.S. base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier is near the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas military base, and the proximity has been a continuing source of tension.
Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, director of intelligence at the U.S. Africa Command, told a small group of African-based journalists in a telephone media roundtable that China tried to “constrain international airspace” by barring aircraft from flying over the Chinese military base, flashed ground-based lasers into the eyes of American pilots and deployed drones designed to interfere with U.S. flight operations.
The U.S. admiral said Chinese personnel even attempted “intrusion activity,” a military term for covert entry, with “attempts to gain access to Camp Lemonnier.”
Adm. Berg has been with the U.S. Navy almost 30 years. She was previously attached to the “military issues” command at the CIA and has served abroad in a number of conflicts.
The Pentagon formally complained to Beijing a year ago when two U.S. airmen suffered “minor” injuries suspected to be caused by Chinese-deployed lasers in Djibouti, but the other instances of harassment apparently have not been revealed.
Asked to expand on the admiral’s remarks, an AFRICOM spokeswoman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in a statement that “the United States takes appropriate measures to ensure the force protection of its personnel and assets” and that “lasing incidents had occurred in the past” but are “no longer an issue.”
“We work with our host nation in order to deconflict airspace, as well as prevent other incidents that infringe on force protect and that can potentially compromise operations,” the statement said. “At this time, we are unable to be more specific, as further details could provide information that could compromise ongoing or future operations and force-protection measures.”
The Chinese have lodged their own complaints in the past about U.S. activities in the crowded Djibouti port, which also hosts military outposts from France, Japan, Germany, Spain and Italy. China has complained that low-flying U.S. aircraft near the Chinese base have been conducting espionage operations.
Adm. Berg said Djibouti, as the host nation for the U.S. and Chinese bases, needs to “focus on maintaining their sovereignty” in the face of strong economic leverage from Beijing. China, she said, “currently holds over 88% of Djiboutian debt, and that is a concern.”
She said Chinese military and security engagement have increased significantly on the continent in the past five years and warned that the U.S. was falling behind in trade.
“China [has been] the principal trade partner in Africa since 2016. They’ve tripled their loans since 2012, and Beijing is the major debt holder for multiple sub-Saharan African governments. Since 2014, we’re estimating over $172 billion worth of investments in loans,” she said.
The Trump administration has watched with unease as Beijing uses its cash reserves and infrastructure funding to build up its economic and diplomatic clout in nations across Africa. Countries indebted to China include Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya. Djibouti is considered one of the most vulnerable of China’s debtors.
“China is the second largest arms supplier on the continent, behind Russia,” Adm. Berg said.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have had multiple debates in recent years over the vulnerability of the U.S. in Africa and especially in Djibouti, where President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s authoritarian rule has long raised concerns of human rights groups. Since independence from France in 1977, the country’s only two presidents have been Mr. Guelleh and his late uncle.
Djibouti dominates a narrow strait that controls entry from the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal on one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Djibouti officials have made clear that they do not want to be caught in the crossfire of a conflict between the two superpowers with bases on their soil.
“We are happy to have our friends here, but our intention is not to suffer from our generosity,” Djibouti Finance Minister Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh told The (Canadian) Globe and Mail this month.
“Are different powers conflicting in Djibouti? They should not. It’s not in our interest. And it’s not in their interest either. The two superpowers have more to gain from the stability of this region than from creating unnecessary conflict.”