US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived Sunday for a short visit to Djibouti, a strategic Horn of Africa nation which hosts Washington's only permanent military base on the continent.
Camp Lemonnier, home to some 4,000 US soldiers and contractors, is vital to US military operations in Somalia against militant groups like Al-Shabaab, and also provides support for US operations in Yemen, where special forces regularly carry out drone strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
China is also in the process of establishing its first overseas military base in the small port country just a few miles from the US camp, which has raised concern in Washington.
Mattis is scheduled to meet with Djibouti's president, Ismael Omar Guelleh as well as with General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of US troops in Africa.
‘For (the defense department) Camp Lemonnier and Chabelley are critical in terms of logistics. They support multiple US combat command’, a senior defense official said, referring to an airfield close to the camp, from which the US military operates drones.
Another senior defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, also played down any concerns about China's base construction.
‘At this point I don't see why we should not be able to comfortably coexist with the Chinese presence, the way we do with the Japanese, the French...’ the official told reporters last week.
- Chinese 'pearl necklace' -
Critics say China is trying to construct a so-called ‘pearl necklace’ in the Indian Ocean -- a reference to various ports in which China has direct interest in operations including Gwadar in Pakistan and the Colombo Port City in Sri Lanka.
However, Waldhauser assured the US Senate's armed forces committee in March that he had spoken to Guelleh ‘and expressed our concerns about some of the things that are important to us about what the Chinese may or may not do’.
With a population of 875,000 people, Djibouti lies on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest shipping routes.
The former French colony has launched major infrastructure projects aimed at turning it into a regional hub for trade and services, using money largely borrowed from China.
In October, Ethiopia formally inaugurated a train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, a Chinese-funded project that is Africa's first fully electrified transnational railway.
China has said it wants the base to support its UN peacekeepers in Africa, allow it to evacuate its nationals in a crisis, and to support its anti-piracy activities off Somalia.
The United States set up base in Djibouti shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks to back up operations against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and was described as a temporary measure at the time.
But this was formalised and buttressed in 2014 when the US signed a bail for 20 years.
France has about 1,450 troops stationed in Djibouti.
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