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A long way from home: the unexpected smart power role of Japan Self-Defence Force Base Djibouti

10 February, 2021

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

If someone were to ask you where Japan opened its first post-war overseas military base in 2011, you would be forgiven for assuming that it would be somewhere Japan has previously participated in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations such as South Sudan. Well, you would be wrong. The base in question is in Djibouti: a former French colony located in the Horn of Africa. However, this is less surprising when you consider Djibouti’s strategic importance.

The Japanese military presence in the Horn of Africa commenced in 2009, when two Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) destroyers were dispatched to the region to participate in counterpiracy operations following an emergency order from the cabinet: an official statement made by then-Prime Minister Asō and public opinion poll results from the time indicate that Japan’s dependency on imports and its subsequent concerns over maritime security influenced this decision. In 2011, as part of an effort to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) Base Djibouti was established. The base has also been used as a transit point for the evacuation of Japanese nationals from South Sudan. Given that Japan’s first piracy case was concluded with a decision reached by the Tokyo High Court in December 2013, Japan is clearly no stranger to combatting piracy in the region.

This piracy, however, decreased remarkably between 2011 and 2017. Another factor explains the base’s presence: rising Chinese influence in Djibouti. Like Japan, China initially arrived in the region as part of a counter-piracy task force in the late 2000s. A decade later, it has been shown that the Chinese perspective of overseas military bases now identifies five functions of such facilities: “war, diplomatic signal, political change, building relationships and providing facilities for training”. It has also been emphasised that in addition to the purchase, construction and management of port facilities in Egypt, Greece, and Israel, the construction of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti is also part of China’s Silk Road strategy in consolidating its maritime communications links with Europe. It is difficult to find many other explanations for the Japanese government’s desire to expand this base under the current circumstances, especially given Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s obvious intentions to create a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. One Japanese expert explains part of the rationale behind the deployment of JSDF personnel to Djibouti more frankly as: “the prevention of a South China Sea stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea”, along with “readiness to respond in the case of an emergency” and “as a window for collecting information on the actions and situations of each country”. From a hard power perspective, this would also explain Japan’s conspicuously increasing defence spending. In short, the hard power-related nuances of JSDF Base Djibouti are rather clear: it is a bastion of Japanese hard power projection in a distant yet strategically vital location, necessary to directly combat one issue (piracy) or alleviate another (increased Chinese hard power projection in the Horn of Africa).

The very presence of a Japanese military base in another country is in itself somewhat bizarre, given that Japan has been described as a “’cool’, ‘soft’ superpower”. Djibouti is a beneficiary of Japanese soft power in many respects, including ODA (official development assistance), which has taken the form of grant aid. Japanese soft power in Africa is embodied in long-standing international structures including the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which has been in place for almost three decades. Even the JMSDF personnel stationed at the Djibouti base have participated in local soft power-building initiatives, including visits to Fukuzawa Secondary School, where they reportedly organised Japanese folk dances and football games. Accounts detailing similar displays of Japanese soft power written in 2010 by a former employee of the Japanese Embassy to Djibouti are still available on the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website (in Japanese). Published in the form of a blog detailing the activities and experiences of Japanese diplomats around the world, one such account given in the fifth “episode” within a series of ten represents more personal and relatable examples at the individual level: “Even while struggling with the unfamiliar French language and African customs, all of the (JSDF) members interact on a daily basis with the people of Djibouti”, to the extent that even Japanese-language menus are provided in local restaurants.

Soft power can be just as important an element in global security as hard power. This leads us to what has been termed “smart power”. There is some disagreement over what smart power is and what it is supposed to consist of, whether it is a strategy, a tool, or both of those things. Broadly speaking, smart power has been identified as a five-dimensional strategy combining the elements of hard and soft power with three additional dimensions: “smart target”, which concerns the choice of target based on plausible allocation of resources; “smart strategy”, which dictates that the benefits should not be outweighed by the resources spent; and “smart face”, whereby elements of hard power are portrayed as necessary. The application of this framework to Japan’s Djibouti policy makes for interesting results. Its soft power is so mighty that, as demonstrated above, even its hard power projection efforts can generate soft power. This enables a healthy combination of the two into smart power, depending on the presence or absence of the three other dimensions, of course.

Some believe, however, that Djibouti’s relations with foreign powers have made Djibouti dependent on larger actors. Neither Djiboutian soft power nor hard power should be under-estimated. Djiboutian soft power is indeed taking a form of its own: enter Djibouti’s Vision 2035, a development project as part of which it is hoped that, according to a booklet featured on the website of Djibouti’s embassy to Kuwait, “Djibouti will become the Lighthouse of the Red sea and a bridge between the continent of Africa, Middle East, Asia, and Europe”. The economic development of Djibouti as a major transport and infrastructure hub has seen several notable developments in recent years, ranging from a new railway connection with Addis Ababa to the opening of new mineral ports. Djibouti’s infrastructural transformation is such that, in comparison with less-developed ports such as Bosaso, Djibouti, on the other hand, represents a combination of “port-making” and “state-making”, where political leadership relies, as explained by an expert on maritime piracy, on the conversion of “location and sovereignty into a concession and resource”. Djibouti’s rather impressive diplomatic track record is also a good indicator of Djiboutian soft power. Given that Djibouti is hemmed between several unfriendly or unpredictable neighbours, it has excelled in diversifying “…its partners and services, while simultaneously diversifying its roles and positions of leadership in international organizations”. In terms of Djiboutian hard power, one only has to look at Djibouti’s dizzyingly sophisticated array of military alliances. It is not afraid of doing away with these alliances when necessary, either: the military forces of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stationed in Djibouti were evicted following a diplomatic row. Djibouti is still keen, however, on retaining foreign military bases, including that of Japan. In the aforementioned booklet, it is emphasised that the current and future presence of foreign military bases in Djiboutian territory will “…ensure a full surveillance to counter terrorism and piracy, and will reinforce security not only on the mouth of the Red Sea, but also in the sub-region”

In terms of what action Suga may take with regards to the base itself, much can be inferred from opinion polls. The first, carried out by the Pew Research Centre, shows that the Japanese public perception of China has remained consistently negative. This is strengthened by a second poll published by the Japanese Cabinet Office. It is not hard to imagine why: even before the coronavirus pandemic, Sino-Japanese relations were already in a sorry state. Where does that leave us? A traditionally pacifist Japanese public, which has long opposed the idea of sending troops abroad, also expresses a level of anti-Chinese sentiment that could increase in the event of rising Sino-Japanese tensions or ignited in the event of hostilities. A hypothetical yet grim example of what could occur under such circumstances was revealed following a simulation in July 2020 involving a model Chinese attack on the contested Senkaku Islands: this simulation resulted in a Chinese victory and heavy losses on both sides.

Maintenance of the base and the continued stationing of SDF personnel in Djibouti may facilitate the development of the “Multi-Domain Defence Force”, part of a defence build-up authorised by the Abe administration in December 2018. A slightly more inconspicuous form of continued Japanese hard power in Djibouti is personified by Umio Otsuka: a retired JSMDF vice admiral who was appointed as Japan’s ambassador to Djibouti in September, becoming post-war Japan’s first ambassador with a military service record. From a more constructivist viewpoint, this may hint at a slow yet steady erosion of pacifist and anti-militarist attitudes which have thrived in post-war Japan.

Suga could always complement this presence with a considerable injection of soft power, such as increased bilateral economic cooperation. This would help to dampen the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Djibouti’s economy, alongside helping to alleviate the two spectres which continue to haunt it: poverty and unemployment. The measures which have been recommended to tackle these issues range from the restructuring of certain parts of the hospitality sector to the creation of subcontracting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and small enterprises (SEs) in Djibouti’s new Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Economic diplomacy has been suggested as a method for Japan to maintain its ties with Africa, and with the number of Japanese companies active on the continent remaining rather low, Djibouti may be an ideal place for Japan to concentrate its economic diplomacy for the time being, before its SEZ is further dominated by Japan’s chief economic rival.

At any rate, things do not look so good for Suga on the domestic front. His support ratings have taken a beating due to his alleged mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic in Japan. This has been largely associated with Suga’s delayed introduction of regional restrictions following fears that a domestic travel campaign run by the Japanese government exacerbated the national coronavirus situation. It has also been speculated that Suga’s assertive claims that the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics will still take place in 2021 are not just the result of the considerable economic and political resources which have already been spent for the sake of these games going ahead, but also the potential loss of face that would occur should the Tokyo Olympics be cancelled or postponed again, only for the February 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing. This loss of face, in turn, bolsters the smart face of a more assertive Japanese policy against China and makes it more attractive.

Some assert that analysis of the tense relations between Washington and Beijing through the lens of geopolitics is “empirically and ethically problematic”, instead proposing a “networks approach”. Nevertheless, this argument somewhat trivialises concerns towards Beijing which are shared by Washington’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including Tokyo. Those concerns have hardly been alleviated by Trump’s erratic foreign policy, and U.S. President Joe Biden faces an enormous task in undoing the damage which has been inflicted since 2016. The importance of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance in the maintenance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific was stressed by both Suga and Biden during a recent phone call, which indicates a promising start. If Suga wishes to demonstrate a more assertive smart power strategy, then Djibouti may be an unexpected yet ideal place to start. After all, in January 2021, China’s largest port operator agreed with Djibouti to turn its port into “a regional hub”. Furthermore, many of the aforementioned developments in infrastructure have been implemented or financed by China. If there is a time for Suga to start showing resolve in his foreign policy and avoid the erosion of Japanese influence in Africa, then that time is most likely now.

Image: U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Kim, commander of the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Mattydale, N.Y., meets with Lt. Col. Masatoshi Tanso at Japan Self-Defense Force Base, Djibouti, Nov. 21, 2018. Japanese and U.S. leadership met to discuss ways to build relationships in the area. (Source: Olivia Cobiskey/US Army)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.