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Shinzo Abe’s Stopover in Djibouti

Abe Djibouti

Abe in Djibouti (Kantei)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s latest trip abroad has taken him to Djibouti, the strategically located small country in the Horn of Africa, home to Japan’s only overseas military base. Abe visited the military facilities and met President Ismail Omar Guelleh. The Japanese prime minister confirmed plans to provide patrol boats to Djibouti to help build its coast guards’ capacity. The visit thus fits with the Japanese policy of cooperating, both bilaterally and multilaterally, in the fight against piracy. It was also an occasion for Abe to stress Tokyo’s strong stance on maritime security.

Arriving on August 27, Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to ever visit Djibouti. The main event of the trip was his visit to the Japanese military facilities in Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, built in 2011, and the first overseas Japanese military base since the end of the Second World War.

Although the English term “base” is employed to describe them, the facilities are not a self-contained base in the usual sense of the word. Addressing the Maritime Self-Defense Forces personnel deployed there, Abe said, “It is vital for Japan to protect waters in the region.”

Japanese plans include sending an expert mission to Djibouti this month in order to assess the situation in the country and its maritime security capabilities. This would be followed by the transfer of patrol boats. Although the legal and financial mechanisms whereby this may take place are similar to those employed by Tokyo in providing ten patrol boats to the Philippines, there is a key difference: While aid to Manila is at least in part motivated by Tokyo’s national interest in helping the Philippines rearm and confront Beijing in the South China Sea, in the case of Djibouti the country is not involved in maritime territorial disputes with any of its neighbors.

In addition to the transfer of equipment to Djibouti’s coast guard, Abe also explained that Japan would be cooperating with the country in the energy arena. To be precise, Tokyo will help Djibouti develop geothermal power.

Japan’s presence in Djibouti is an aspect of the SDF’s gradual internationalization. Two destroyers and two Orion P-3C maritime patrol planes are based there. Tokyo has authorized one of the ships to take part in an international counter-piracy task force. When Japan first decided to deploy naval forces in the area a debate erupted over whether or not the protection of civilian shipping fell within the ban on collective defense.

At first the government leaned towards protecting only Japan-related vessels, which begged the question how to define them. In today’s complex shipping industry, a ship’s nationality, property, origin of the crew, ownership of cargo, and nationality of the insurer rarely coincide. Finally, before the MSDF vessels reached their operating area, Tokyo decided that they would escort and protect all sorts of merchantmen, regardless of whether or not they were connected to Japan.

We can thus see how Japan is taking further steps in its policy of aiding capacity-building in maritime nations located near vital chokepoints and sea lanes. In the case of Djibouti, this is facilitated by the fact that the country is confronting pirates and is not involved in maritime territorial disputes with state actors.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.