Why you should care

Because securing stability in East Africa is in all of our best interests.

Walk down the streets of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa these days and don’t be surprised if you hear certain pleasantries from taxi drivers and vendors: Ni hao, sayonara and hwan-yeong are all becoming increasingly common. More Chinese, Japanese and Korean workers are coming into this strategic area as they begin to camp out far from home for the first time with permanent military facilities.

Rivals at home, where some of their East Asian governments act like enemies, they’re working together a lot better here. This presents the United States, still the dominant foreign military power in the region, with enticing possibilities. “The potential for cooperation is huge and we are just now scratching the surface,” says Army Lt. Col. Jason Nicholson, who has served at several African embassies and at the U.S. Africa Command.

None of the three big Asian economic and military powers is a newbie to Africa. China, especially, has extensive trade and investment ties on the continent, sometimes working with unsavory governments to develop natural resources in areas where the U.S. or European countries hesitate to go. But what’s new is the quiet expansion of a forward military presence. The Djibouti government, for example, confirmed in December that China would build a new naval base aimed at combating piracy and protecting shipping lanes, on which it depends to keep a steady flow of oil and other raw materials.

There’s a lot of room for someone to play a leadership role.

Army Lt. Col. Jason Nicholson

The stepped-up military interest follows an explosive growth in trade with Africa. China’s Africa trade was expected to approach $300 billion in 2015, up tenfold from a decade ago. By contrast, the U.S. total trade with Africa in 2014 came to only $73 billion. Although commodity prices may be down, Africa still offers resource-poor Asian nations good prospects for future development and diversification of energy supplies, and rapid economic growth makes it an attractive place for business.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh in Tokyo.

Source Toru Yamanaka / Getty

In some ways, China is just following Japan’s lead. Four years ago, Japan opened its first overseas military base since World War II, in Djibouti, right next to Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force that’s home to about 2,000 U.S. personnel. The base looks inward toward the continent, and outward toward the sea lanes. And while Korea has no base in Africa, it has deployed troops throughout Africa in support of U.N. missions. Both Korea and Japan have a liaison officer stationed at the U.S. base, providing a formal mechanism to coordinate operations, which also involve European allies.

China looks like the odd man out, with no formal part in the U.S.-led multinational efforts in the region, but it does informally coordinate unilateral efforts with the task force, according to Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Honolulu. “I guess this would be called ‘virtual multilateralism,’ ” Cossa says.

It’s a big contrast to what’s happening closer to home. Japan kicked up a ruckus in September when it passed legislation authorizing overseas military involvement even when Japan is not under attack. China protested the bill, as did thousands of Japanese on the streets of Tokyo. China and Japan have a simmering territorial dispute, and Korea and Japan suffer a snarled relationship of mistrust based on unresolved historical disputes. China, of course, has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, allowing it to create a permanent military presence close to vital sea lanes, much to the consternation of the U.S. and its Pacific allies.

Could all the buddy-buddy stuff in Africa become habit-forming? “There’s a lot of room for someone to play a leadership role,” says Nicholson, while adding that so far no one, including the U.S., is doing that. He sees, for example, opportunities for much more extensive cooperation with China throughout Africa, where interest in secure transit, snuffing out terrorism, and stable societies generally coincide. He figures the U.S. is giving up commercial opportunities to the Chinese. “They are eating our lunch,” Nicholson says.

Still, the possibilities of expanding on the cooperative spirit at Djibouti could be limited. The U.S. has strong bilateral military ties — and security treaties — with both Japan and Korea. But, as Cossa points out, the two U.S. allies have trouble working together outside of a wide multilateral context like the one in Africa. “I don’t see the alliance structure in Asia morphing into an Asian version of NATO,” he says, referring to the European alliance that obligates nations to come to one another’s defense. So far, the political will on both sides of the Korea Strait has been lacking, and there’s no sign that’s about to change.

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