In the wake of former US secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Africa, the White House announced a plan for talks with China on, among other things, that country’s role in one of the continent’s busiest ports.
In February, President Ismaïl Guelleh of Djibouti issued a decree nationalising the country’s container terminal and ending a 30-year lease to Dubai firm, DP World.
The harbour at Doraleh, right next to China’s military base in Djibouti, serves shipping headed for Europe via the Suez Canal.
Djibouti controls the only route from the Indian Ocean to Suez, via the Red Sea. It is through this narrow strait that most of East Africa’s exports are carried north to Britain, France and Germany.
While DP World has announced plans to sue the government, Djibouti said seizure of the port was an act of “sovereignty” and within its rights, accusing the firm of slowing work at the terminal and building rival facilities in neighbouring states.
Analysts say this refers to the port of Berbera in Somaliland, where DP World is building a dock that could take away trade with land-locked Ethiopia, currently Djibouti’s largest client. It could also serve shipping from East Africa.
But it was rumours that Doraleh — already part-owned by a Chinese government firm — could fall under control of Beijing that caused panic in Washington.
The Pentagon has its sole African military base in Djibouti, with close to 4,000 personnel. From here, American forces work with Kenya and other regional powers to combat groups like al Shabaab who carried out the 2013 attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi and murdered 148 people at Garissa University two years later.
Chinese control of facilities in Djibouti could hamper visits by US submarines and warships though Mr Guelleh has said his government has no plans to involve Beijing.
However, Mr Tillerson voiced his “concern” over the level of Chinese loans to Djibouti, currently standing at more than 70 per cent of that country’s GDP.
The Trump administration says it plans “a discussion with China in Washington later this year about what their overall goals and operations in Africa.”
While the US routinely criticises Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia on human-rights and democracy, it has been reticent to speak out on Djibouti where President Guelleh has changed the two-term constitution and has been in power for 19 years.
Since independence from France in 1977, the only two presidents have been Mr Guelleh and his uncle who died in 1999.
Last month, Djibouti’s ambassador to Washington said his country remained, “a committed friend and ally of the United States.” And when Djibouti’s foreign minister met with Mr Tillerson, he ruled out leasing the harbour to China.
But America’s top soldier in Africa, General Thomas Waldhauser, sounded a warning. “If the Chinese take over that port, then the consequences could be significant,” he said.
While East African shipping and the US base rely on the goodwill of President Guelleh, Djibouti is in turn dependent on Addis Ababa.
Most of its drinking water comes from Ethiopia, along with fruit, vegetables and grain. But the Ethiopians are spreading their bets and have bought a 19 per cent stake in the DP World harbour at Berbera.
Somaliland is not officially recognised, but its passports are accepted by most countries, including all of East Africa, and its president is treated as a de-facto head of state when he travels.
The country is English speaking, democratic and could provide the Pentagon with an alternative.
A switch by Ethiopia to Berbera would be devastating for Djibouti. If Kenya and Tanzania did the same, using Berbera as their stop en route to Europe, it would be a further blow.
Berbera is cheaper, but Somaliland’s status as a breakaway republic rather than a sovereign state is a problem.
For now, Nairobi enjoys excellent relations with both Djibouti and the US.
Mr Tillerson cut short his Africa visit for health reasons only to be dismissed by President Trump on his return to Washington.
Last Monday, the US ambassador to Djibouti said Mr Tillerson had emphasised “the need for transparency” in meetings with President Guelleh and Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Ali Youssouf.
Mr Andre rejected claims that the US was soft in its criticism of Djibouti, adding that every year, Washington issued “detailed human rights report that is made available widely to the public”.
But he said some discussions were best handled privately between the two countries.
“When we see the government responding to our concerns in a positive way, then that is less reason for us to make public comments,” he said.