China and America’s awkward dance over cheese and wine in Djibouti’s nest of spies
China and America’s awkward dance over cheese and wine in Djibouti’s nest of spies

China and America’s awkward dance over cheese and wine in Djibouti’s nest of spies

In the early 20th century it was Oslo, in the 40s it was Casablanca and in the 50s it was Berlin.

Today, one can argue that the world’s spy capital is the little-known African nation of Djibouti.

Two U.S. Osprey military planes roar overhead from Camp Lemonnier, sending special forces missions into the deserts of war-torn Yemen and Somalia.

A few kilometers down the road, China’s only overseas military base is on the edge of the water.

This ugged, sun-baked, small nation in the Horn of Africa is now home to one of the largest concentrations of foreign military bases on earth.

Over the past decade, the nation of less than a million people has become a microcosm of the new world order. It has become a nest of spies, a place where the ancient Western powers compete for influence against China’s rising power.

A regular cheese and wine night at the Kempinski Hotel overlooking the port’s azure waters draws in all sorts of diplomats, military contractors and soldiers, except, it seems, the Chinese. The relationship is peaceful, but surveillance is everywhere.

“Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to get used to the fact that nothing is private,” says a foreign diplomat. “Everyone here is conspiring. It’s the national pastime.”

Thousands of troops from the United States, China, France, Japan, Spain and Italy here guarantee the security of a local aristocracy of corrupt politicians in exchange for some of the most strategically valuable real estate on earth.

Western officials estimate that there may be 10,000 Chinese troops behind the concrete blast walls of China’s top-secret installation. But to outsiders, the web of barbed wire and gun turrets mysteriously seems uninhabited. No one seems to be coming out.

“I walk past the base every day, but I never think I’ve seen anyone. Who knows what they’re up to in there,” said a UN official, who asked to remain anonymous.

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