Djibouti downplays China debt as US fears loss of critical port | washingtonexaminer.com

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Saturday March 10, 2018 - 11:09:17 in News In English
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a multi-state swing through Africa to strengthen economic and counterterrorism relations in the region. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf on Friday brushed off U.S. fears that his nation's indebtedness to China could make it less of an ally to the U.S., which is increasingly alarmed about the possibility of losing a critical military port there.

"China is... a very good partner," Youssouf said. "Of course, the burden of debt is there, we are aware of it. But let me tell you that it is so far manageable."

 


Youssouf confirmed that he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about China during Tillerson's visit there this week. Tillerson is on a multi-state swing through Africa to strengthen economic and counterterrorism relations in the region.

By necessity, part of that effort takes place with one eye looking east, as he seeks to buttress U.S. partners from what he has called the "predatory economics” of the Chinese government.

"Our message is for countries to consider carefully what the terms of those agreements are, and not forfeit any elements of your sovereignty as you enter into such arrangements with China,” TillersonsaidThursday at Camp Lemonnier, a key U.S. base in Djibouti.

Djibouti's debt to China is $1.2 billion, which nearly equals the annual economic output of the country. But Youssouf downplayed it.

"We have something, like, 84 percent of our GDP in terms of debt, but we have also to recognize that countries like Japan have more than 200 percent of their GDP in terms of that burden,” he said. "We invested in a very strong and good infrastructure, and we hope that this commercial infrastructure will be able to help us pay back our debt. So we are not that worried, but – we keep an eye on that and we see that China is doing a good job in terms of financing our infrastructure.”

Defense Department officials worry that China might take control of the Djiboutian port that services Camp Lemonnier, which would be a blow to U.S. operations and give China increased control over a choke point in the shipping lane from East Africa to the Indian Ocean.

"If the Chinese took over that port, the consequences could be significant if there were some restrictions on our ability to use that, because obviously the supplies that come in not only take care of Camp Lemonnier and other places inside the continent, it is a huge activity there,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command,saidTuesday. "Moreover, our U.S. Navy ships come in and out of there to refuel and whatnot. There could be some consequences, that is why it is important to watch this.”

That could lead to a scenario similar to the one confronting U.S. officials in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands to assert sovereignty over one of the most vital shipping lanes in the world. Tillerson seemed to allude to this concern when he described his conversations with Youssouf, though he didn’t mention China directly.

"One of our most important areas of cooperation and mutual interest, I think is well understood, is security,” Tillerson said. "Djibouti plays a major role in safeguarding the free flow of global commerce through the Red Sea, allowing billions of people to access goods from all over the world by keeping the sea lanes free and open.”



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