Commentary - Presidents First Foreign Trip to Djibouti: Why It Matters?
Dr Neha Sinha

President R.N. Kovind chose Djibouti as first leg of his visit to Africa. This is the first time a top Indian leader visited Djibouti on an official visit. This is not surprising because Djibouti has a strategic location on the Horn of Africa, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. The country with total area of 23,200 km2 and population of over 942,333 inhabitants is positioned on the northwest edge of the Indian Ocean and is emerging as a key state in the Indian Ocean region. India and Djibouti have shared trade relations for hundreds of years. Bilateral trade stood at $284.54 million US Dollars in 2016-17 of which India’s export to Djibouti were $281.74 million US Dollars and imports from Djibouti were comparatively small viz. $2.82 million US Dollars.

The country is small both in size and population but its position on the tip of Horn of Africa is such that it offers strategic access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This strait connects the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond marking itself as the world's most important sea lanes where millions of barrels of oil and petroleum products pass through the strait on a daily basis. Djibouti also lies at the junction of three highly troubled regions which are: the Arabian Peninsula particularly Yemen; the Horn of Africa which includes Somalia, Eritrea; and lastly, Egypt and Sudan in North Africa.

In the year 2015, country extended crucial help during ‘Operation Rahat’ in the evacuation of more than 4,000 Indians and 960 foreign nationals of 41 countries from war-torn Yemen to India. Djibouti was the pivot of operations during Indian efforts to evacuate its nationals fleeing the civil war in Yemen. The evacuation by sea started on 1st April 2015 from the Aden port while the air evacuation was started by the Indian Air Force and Air India on 3rd April 2015 from Sana, Yemen. The Indian Navy deployed three ships - INS Mumbai, INS Tarkash, and INS Sumitra in the evacuation operations. Those who were trapped in smaller places were brought by civil boats to these ships for their onward journey to safety. Despite India not having huge presence in Djibouti, the country provided all facilities required to evacuate and move thousands of people by air and sea. The operation finally came to an end on 8th April 2015 for which India remains grateful to Djibouti’s significant role in helping Indians evacuate from Yemen.

The President's visit to Djibouti comes in the backdrop of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops conducting their first live-fire military drills overseas on their base in Djibouti last month. The establishment of naval base in Djibouti represents the "first pearl of a necklace" unfolding along the sea route that connects China to West Asia. This would in many ways help China realise its ambitious plan of a Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The MSR is a vast international network of sea infrastructure which aims at securing its trade routes, ensuring the undisturbed travel of China-bound raw materials and energy vessels, as well as of its transformed products back to Europe through the Gulf of Aden. Africa is home to an estimated one million Chinese nationals, with many employed in infrastructure projects backed by the Chinese government. China's involvement in African security is a product of a wider transformation of China's national defense policy and the base is seen as a move pushing China’s own limits to its foreign policy and underscores its growing security profile in Africa. Djibouti also hosts the largest American permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, which is home to more than 4,000 personnel. France, Japan and Italy already have small military base attached in the country.

Areas of Cooperation

The President in Djibouti led delegation-level talks with his counterpart where an agreement to establish regular political consultations between India and Djibouti, at the level of the Foreign Office, was signed in the presence of the two Presidents. Both the leaders acknowledged the significant role of Djibouti and its strategic importance as well as India's role for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa region. They underlined the need to engage both India and Djibouti on regional and international issues of mutual concern. President Kovind made specific reference to areas of common concern and interest such as renewable energy and particularly Djibouti’s support for membership of the International Solar Alliance, maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region and technical and capacity building assistance by India to enhance employment opportunities for Djibouti’s young people. The leaders called for an urgent need for the reform of the United Nations Security Council, including its expansion, to make it more representative, accountable, effective and responsive to the geo-political realities of the 21st century.

India is grateful to Djibouti due to the long standing historical links and India’s contribution in the field of education and training, especially for the Somali speaking population many of whom have been taught by Indian teachers, Djibouti is keen to improve it bilateral relations with India especially in the area of capacity building. The Djiboutian government on the other hand, expressed appreciation for the contribution of the Indian community towards Djibouti’s economic development and promotion of bilateral relations. They underlined the need for promoting greater cultural exchanges. Appreciating the scholarships and training programmes offered by India under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC), India Africa Forum Summit, Indian Council for Cultural Relation, etc. the Djiboutian government called for further expanding these programmes.

India recognises that Africa and Indian Ocean region are key pillars of the Indian foreign policy. Enhancing trade and investment linkages remains one of the key focuses of Presidents visit. The visit to Djibouti will lay the foundation for future growth in bilateral relations. It was recognized by both the sides that the leaders need to meet at regular intervals for timely execution of various projects and have a sustained focus on timely completion of the projects started and implementation of the agreements reached. To further strengthen the relationship, a significant role can be played by the establishment of an Indian Embassy in Djibouti. The opening of an Indian Embassy will give India an edge in the nation and facilitate the bilateral movement of people, goods. This, in the long run will propel and promote business relationships between the two nations.


Addis Getachew, 2017; Anadolu Agency.
Brad Lendon and Steve George (2017), “China sends troops to Djibouti, establishes first overseas military base” by,CNN. base/index.html
Embassy of India, Ethiopia and Djibouti. (October 5, 2017)
Embassy of India, Addis Ababa, 2017:
Elizabeth Roche, 2017: ‘Ram Nath Kovind to visit Africa this week on first foreign trip as president’. LiveMint
NDTV (October4, 2017).
Press Releases, Rashtrapati Bhavan 2017; ‘President of India Accorded Ceremonial Welcome, Holds Talks with President of Djibouti; Agreement Signed Between the Two Countries’.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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