Xi Jinping's great leap forward in the current decade is to build a satellite launch centre in Djibouti

China's new ambition: to set up a space base in the Horn of Africa

Las relaciones entre Yibuti y China son excelentes en todos los órdenes, hasta el punto de que la potencia asiática ha acordado con las autoridades del país africano levantar una base espacial en su territorio - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine en Djibouti
Relations between Djibouti and China are excellent in all respects, to the point that the Asian power has agreed with the authorities of the African country to set up a space base on its territory - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine in Djibouti/TWITTER

China's presence in cooperation projects with the vast majority of African countries has grown stronger and stronger over the years. So much so that Beijing has taken a giant leap forward and with the 79-year-old president of the Republic of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh - in power since May 1999 - has agreed to set up a space base on his territory. 

  1. To position itself in Africa's growing space market
  2. A privileged position for access to space

Located in the strategic enclave of the Horn of Africa, Djibouti lies in the east of the continent, between Eritrea and Somalia, at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is separated from the Arabian Peninsula by the important Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the natural passageway for much of the world's crude oil and cargo trade between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. 

A French protectorate since the 19th century, known as French Somalia, which gained independence in 1977, Djibouti is a country with an area of 23,200 square kilometres - the size of the Valencian Community, but with five times less population, only 1.2 million inhabitants - of which one million live in the capital, also called Djibouti.

Conocida como la Somalia francesa hasta su independencia en 1977, Yibuti es un enclave estratégico desde donde se controla el tráfico marítimo de crudo y mercancías entre el mar Rojo y el océano Índico 
 PHOTO/Wikipedia Dominio Público
Known as French Somalia until its independence in 1977, Djibouti is a strategic enclave controlling the maritime traffic of crude oil and goods between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean - PHOTO/Wikipedia Public Domain

The sparsely populated nation has maintained very good diplomatic, commercial and military relations with the big Asian country for the past 45 years. On its coast, China opened a naval base in 2017 to provide logistical support for its navy, which already sails the world's oceans. And now, the next step Beijing has decided to take is to build a spaceport near Obock, in the far north of the territory, a short distance from its military installation. 

This is not a ballistic missile launch base. Such a decision would be immediately vetoed by the United States, which since 2003 has also had a major military base in the vicinity of the capital and its international airport, Washington's only permanent base on African soil: Camp Lemonnier, which houses some 4,000 military and auxiliary personnel over an area of some 4 square kilometres.

Videoconferencia desde la estación espacial china Tiangong patrocinada por la Embajada de China en Yibuti para dar a conocer las actividades en órbita de los astronautas chinos 
 PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine en Djibouti
Videoconference from China's Tiangong space station hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Djibouti to raise awareness of Chinese astronauts' in-orbit activities - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine in Djibouti/TWITTER

To position itself in Africa's growing space market

Beijing aims to build a commercial space base in an attempt to position itself in the growing African satellite market. So far, countries on the continent that have made a bid for space have had to turn to the United States, Russia, Europe, India and even China to launch their platforms into orbit. In contrast, a launch complex in Djibouti would appeal to the newly created African Space Agency and many of the continent's nations. 

The initiative comes from China's highly influential ambassador to Djibouti, Hu Bin, supported by a core group of leaders close to Xi Jinping and endorsed by the head of China's space agency, Zhang Kejian. However, the proposal presented to the highest authorities in Djibouti has been channelled through two private Chinese business groups. One is the Touchroad International Holding Group, which has been mining in Djibouti for more than 20 years.

It was Touchroad's chairman, Liehui He, who last June presented to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Prime Minister Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed and a group of ambassadors from East African countries the main features of an initiative whose investment exceeds 1 billion dollars. The second Chinese company involved in the project is Hong Kong Aerospace Technology Group (HKATG), which is providing the technological component. 

El muy influyente embajador chino en Yibuti, Hu Bin, gracias a cuya mediación Pekín ha presentado su propuesta de base espacial en África - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine en Djibouti
The highly influential Chinese ambassador to Djibouti, Hu Bin, through whose mediation Beijing has presented its proposal for a space base in Africa - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine in Djibouti/TWITTER

The terms of the letter of intent in MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) that the two private companies have signed with the State of Djibouti "detail the responsibilities of each party," confirms Aboubakar Hassan, secretary general of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, the department in which the space activities are carried out. The Chinese companies will be in charge of ensuring the smooth running of the project and the realisation of the necessary infrastructures. 

The three partners have formed a joint venture that will be responsible for operating satellite launch services to low and medium earth orbit for 30 years, as well as the satellite programmes derived from the project. The intention is to build no less than seven launch pads - Chinese, state and private, of course - and three rocket engine test beds, the performance of which remains a secret, on a site just over 10 square kilometres in size.

El presidente del grupo empresarial Touchroad International Holding, Liehui He, al fondo, a la derecha, expone a las autoridades de Yibuti las características de un proyecto de 1.000 millones de dólares - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine en Djibouti
The chairman of the Touchroad International Holding Group, Liehui He, far right, explains to the Djibouti authorities about a $1 billion project - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine in Djibouti/TWITTER

A privileged position for access to space

But not only that. Also all the associated infrastructures. For example, an airport, a port facility, buildings for the integration of launchers and satellites, two power plants, fuel depots, a desalination plant, the inland road network and the roads linking the space base to the nation's capital. Antennas and buildings to monitor and control the missions to be launched into orbit will also be included. 

Why in Djibouti? The reasons for Xi Jinping's approval of a commercial space launch base in an African country have initially raised many questions in the international community. But it is clear that Beijing's political authorities, its strategists and the technicians of its space agency, before submitting the decision to the Chinese president, carefully considered their risky gamble.

Estados Unidos mantiene en Yibuti su gran base aeronaval de Camp Lemonnier. La subsecretaria adjunta de Defensa, Mara Karlin (izquierda), visitó en verano las instalaciones para conocer las condiciones de vida del personal militar femenino - PHOTO/USA DoD
The US maintains its large naval air base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Mara Karlin (left) visited the facility in the summer to learn about the living conditions of female military personnel. - PHOTO/USA DoD

Djibouti is not threatened by jihadist terrorist groups or anti-government guerrillas. It has a low crime rate and enjoys a limited degree of development that is sufficient to maintain social peace among its population, resulting in a political stability that is the envy of its neighbours. 

From the point of view of access to space, the area where Chinese engineers are planning to build the new launch base is a region - Obock - located near the 12th parallel. This is a more advantageous geographical position than the Chinese space centre at Wenchang, located near the 19th parallel, in the far south of China. Higher ascent speeds can be achieved from Obock than from Wenchang to position the same amount of payload in orbit.

El presidente de la República, Ismail Omar Guelleh, de 79 años, en el poder desde mayo de 1999, ha acordado con Xi Jinping levantar una base espacial en territorio de Yibuti - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine en Djibouti
President Ismail Omar Guelleh, 79, in power since May 1999, has agreed with Xi Jinping to build a space base on Djiboutian territory - PHOTO/Ambassade de Chine in Djibouti/TWITTER

There are more factors in Djibouti's favour. It has a desert climate with little rainfall, which makes it easier to observe launches. Most importantly, bilateral relations are friendly and stable, politically, militarily and economically. 

For example, Chinese companies have financed and built the electrified railway line from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, to the port of Djibouti. An outlay of close to 4 billion dollars that Beijing has to recoup. And the president of Djibouti's National Assembly, Dileita Mohamed Dileita, paid a five-day visit to China at the end of January, where he met with its main authorities.

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