DJIBOUTI — “World War III will start here.”
We had been driving around the streets of this African city for more than an hour, and my companion — an agent from the national intelligence service whom I will call Mohammed — was excited by the implications of what he had been showing me.
Strategically placed at the entrance to the Red Sea, commanding a large percentage of the trade and energy flows between Europe and Asia, Djibouti is home to more foreign bases than any other country. We drove by one of the four surviving French bases. The perimeter was wide, but the building immediately reminded you of an old Foreign Legion fort, with its run-down walls and picturesque watch towers.
What a contrast to the dark and menacing Chinese naval base I had visited the day before or the autonomous city in the desert that is Camp Lemonnier, the American base.
Mohammed — who asked that an alias be used to protect his identity — must have sensed my bemusement and pointed out that another French base, on Cape Heron, is today more of a tourist resort for quiet swimming and barbecues than an armed camp.
“The French will never leave that one,” he said. “And if they do, it will be immediately taken up by the wealthiest families.”
Welcome to “The Coming Wars,” where over the next few months we’ll examine a world where borders are becoming increasingly meaningless, but where rivalry and the potential for conflict remain undiminished.
As new powers rise and the formerly hegemonic West loses relative power, we are entering the first period in human history in which modern technology will be combined with a chaotic international arena, in which no single actor or group of actor is capable of imposing order.
The coming wars may be armed conflicts, but they could also take radically different forms: struggles to control infrastructure, propaganda battles, tech races in artificial intelligence and robotics, cyberwar, and trade and economic warfare.
Only one thing is certain: They will be contested by nations with deeply integrated economies and infrastructure across borders that are diluted, permeable and sometimes supple.
This column will take us to the most important hot spots, where we’ll talk to the decision-makers and reveal stories taking place behind the curtain. If the world is heading toward a major conflict or war, we need to think about what shape it will take and where it could plausibly start.
And what better place to begin than Djibouti?
As France — the first to maintain a military presence in the country — slowly abandons its bases due to budgetary constraints, others have been moving in. The United States recently opened a second base on Chabelley Airfield — unmentioned in its public list of overseas bases — after its drones interfered with air traffic at Camp Lemonnier.
The country hosts China and Japan’s only foreign military bases. There’s an Italian base too and Saudi Arabia is building one as well. Djibouti has made overtures to Turkey. And, according to Mohammed, (and later an second independent source) Russia has made inquiries.
India too is rumored to be considering the possibility of acquiring a block of the most prized military real estate in the world. If it does, every major global power will have a Djibouti footprint and the country will resemble a live model of state conflict in the 21st century.
During my stay in the city, I witnessed French and Japanese soldiers competing for the attention of the local prostitutes in the center nightclubs, and the Chinese and Americans using every opportunity to try to take pictures of each other’s equipment and logistics. Colonel Bogoreh — the top commander of the Djibouti Coast Guard — told me a revealing story: After Chinese sailors kept taking unauthorized photos of an American destroyer, he was asked to step in and provide some order.
But what happens in case of war between countries with adjacent military bases in Djibouti?
The answer is not clear, and much would depend on the nature of the conflict. If India does indeed open a military base in Djibouti, any future conflict with China would immediately spread there, because Djibouti is so central to China’s ability to encircle India. In a scenario of conflict between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, their bases in Djibouti would be put on high alert, but they could very well remain uninvolved.
Another possibility is that warring states would choose Djibouti as the scenario for a limited conflict. Every territorial dispute between China and Japan is so fraught with danger that the two countries might prefer to have a show of force far away in Africa.
A recent episode seems to confirm this interpretation: As revealed by an indiscreet piece in the official newspaper of China’s Supreme Prosecutor, last year a Japanese naval ship sent frogmen to approach and spy on a Chinese warship as both ships were docking at Djibouti.
In the last century, conflict was carefully organized along clear borders and spheres of influence, but today, globalization has left rivals all jumbled together — and Djibouti is the perfect image of this new world, where major powers are forced to share the same space.
“Around us you can draw a circle with eight military bases. We are completely surrounded. Most countries would find this strange, but for us …” Mohammed stopped for a moment. “I guess it is quite normal.”