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Saturday, July 2, 2011
First overseas military base since WWII to open in Djibouti
By ALEX MARTIN
The Maritime Self-Defense Force will hold an inauguration ceremony Tuesday in Djibouti for Japan's first overseas military base since World War II, a move that Ahmed Araita Ali, Djibouti's ambassador to Japan, describes as an opportunity for Tokyo to play a larger international role in peacekeeping and forge closer ties between the two nations.
Djibouti is located in the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, and one of the world's busiest maritime routes lies off its coast, with roughly 20,000 vessels, many transporting shipments from Japan, passing by each year.
But in recent years pirates have targeted merchant ships in the area, prompting various nations to deploy military task forces to the region to escort vessels and combat piracy.
"While the number of pirate attacks has been decreasing, it is still a big problem. We believe the presence of Japan in Djibouti will help the situation, and we would also like to develop a win-win partnership with Japan," Araita Ali said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
The ambassador, who will be present at the inauguration ceremony along with Japanese and Djiboutian officials, said that the new base will enhance the activities of the MSDF, which has been operating off the coast of Somalia since 2009.
So far, the MSDF has been headquartered and housed personnel on a U.S. military base in Djibouti, but the new ¥47 billion facility that covers 12 hectares on the northeast side of the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, comes with a runway, hangar, gymnasium and Japanese-style bathing facilities.
The number of MSDF and Self-Defense Forces personnel stationed there will also increase from 150 to 180. The base will be the third international military complex in Djibouti, which already hosts French and U.S. bases.
"With their own base, I think the activities of the MSDF will be more efficient — now they will have their own space, own services." Araita Ali said.
Because the Constitution bans military aggression, the MSDF's operations are limited to escorting vessels safely through the sea route. The Constitution also forbids overseas military deployments, but troops have been sent abroad since the early 1990s on U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Araita Ali, who has been ambassador in Japan since 2008, said Japan and Djibouti have maintained a friendly and positive relationship over the years, which facilitated the opening of the MSDF base.
"The people of Djibouti have a very positive image of Japan because of the support they have given us, especially through the Tokyo International Conference of African Development," he said.
The conference, cohosted by Japan and held every five years since 1993, aims to promote dialogue between African leaders and the international community and raise development funds. Japan has also pledged hundreds of billions worth of yen in loans and financial aid to African nations.
Araita Ali stressed the strategic importance of Djibouti, a peaceful nation with a population of 800,000 amid a turbulent region, with Yemen across the straits experiencing severe civil unrest and neighboring Somalia in ruins after decades of war.
And as a member nation of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a free-trade zone, Araita Ali said Japanese businesses could also benefit by using Djibouti as a gateway to access the 340 million consumers living in the 19 COMESA nations.
"This is a very important moment for Djibouti, not only because of the historical construction of the new Japanese base, but also as a potential new opportunity for making Djibouti the gateway to Africa," he said.