Campaigns for the U.N. Security Council are usually not paid much attention. Yet these annual affairs can sometimes cost as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars, and can see delegations pull out all the stops: trips around the world to gather support, gift bags, invitations to concerts (in recent years, featuring U2 and Celine Dion). For the 188 member states without a permanent seat on the council — the only U.N. body capable of issuing legally-binding decisions on war and peace — the hassle is well worth it.
Tomorrow, countries will cast their votes to select five new members to sit on the Council for the next two years. The United States, one of the UNSC’s five permanent members, has veto power, so while Security Council elections can become national news stories in other countries, they barely register here. But there’s an interesting contest this year that deserves more scrutiny, especially in light of China’s growing influence in Africa.
Seats on the Security Council are allotted geographically, and this cycle there’s one open for an African country as South Africa’s term comes to an end. Typically, the African Union votes to put forth a single nominee, which is then rubber-stamped in the election. This time, though, there’s a contested race: Kenya, the AU–approved nominee, faces a challenge from Djibouti, which has refused to back down.
Djibouti has argued that Kenya’s victory in the African Union vote violated the organization’s guidelines, so it launched its own bid in December. Officials argue that they were denied the AU’s nod because Djibouti is a Francophone country, and that the AU did not want a third to join the two other African Francophone countries currently on the council.
That might be one factor, but there is an alternative explanation: “There were suspicions that maybe some French-speaking countries are behind it, but now it’s becoming more and more clear that China is pushing Djibouti,” said Roba Sharamo, director of the Addis Ababa–based Institute for Security Studies, to DW News.
As DW News’ reporting notes, both Kenya and Djibouti publicly claim support from the Chinese delegation, which has remained silent about its preferences. And both countries receive investment from China.
However, to the extent that China prefers one over the other, it would probably rather see Djibouti elected, says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.
“If it is the case that China prefers Djibouti over Kenya, it can only be attributed to the higher cost China has to carry to have Kenya on its side,” she tells National Review in an email. “There have been troubles between China and Kenya regarding the financing, refinancing, loans and operations of the Mombasa-Nairobi railway.”
In 2017, China opened a military base in Djibouti, its first overseas. It joined American, French, Italian, and Japanese bases already there. A new report from the Brookings Institution explains Djibouti’s strategic significance as the “western flank of the increasingly pivotal Indo-Pacific domain.” The Pentagon’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy calls the region the “single most consequential region for America’s future.” Yet as the United States has winded down its counterterrorism activity, leading to a reevaluation of its base in Djibouti, China has only just arrived.
Despite the presence of other foreign powers on Djiboutian soil, the country’s interdependence with China has grown significantly. Chinese investment has fueled an infrastructure boom, pushing Djibouti closer toward its goal of becoming a major regional commercial hub.
“Djibouti is in a deeper hole on Chinese loans,” Sun says. But unlike Kenya, its relations with China have not encountered too much friction as a result.
In any case, Djibouti’s U.N. Security Council membership would probably not change too much. The security council’s actions are significantly shaped by its five veto-wielding permanent members. Djibouti’s ascension to the council “will not present challenges that the U.S. has not faced before,” says Brett Schaefer, a Heritage Foundation scholar.
But if Djibouti wins, following a campaign possibly waged at the behest of Beijing, this will be another data point about China’s influence at the U.N. — and another wakeup call about strategic competition in Africa.