To protect the West's oil lifelines from the Persian Gulf, the United States is turning to allies France and Britain for increased defence cooperation and access to naval and air installations in the Indian Ocean region.
The Carter administration now is focusing on the possibility of more use of a French-garrisoned port and airfield in the tiny, but strategically placed, independent country of Djibouti, a 20-minute jet flight from the Soviet air and naval base of Aden, at the entrace to the Red Sea.
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both the British and French governments have quietly reaffirmed their intention to flight, if need be, against any Soviet-backed moves against their Indian Ocean lifelines.
Spokesmen for both allies also have indicated understanding of the US need for local land bases to bolster the thinly stretched American naval forces in and near the Gulf, now under constant watch by Soviet surface ships and aircraft based at Aden.
Britain shares with the US its naval and air installations on the island of Diego Garcia, a strategic speck in the Indian Ocean 2,700 miles from the Gulf. Diego Garcia, with 18,000-foot runways that can accommodate B-52 bombers, is being reinforced through US defense funds. It has become a vital way station on the long US supply routes from Guam and Subic Bay, Philippines, in the Pacific.
US warships now call every week or 10 days at Djibouti's busy port to buy fuel and supplies, say defense officials. US logistical flights periodically visit the airfield. The Carter administration would like to increase these calls.
France maintains the largest permanent Indian Ocean naval force of any Western nation. Britain, whose once-global Royal Navy now patrols mainly the northeastern Atlantic, periodically sends task forces to the Indian Ocean for joint exercises with US and Australian forces.
France's Indian Ocean defense region is commanded by a senior Army general -- with a naval and air staff -- from the island of La Reunion, which as a good harbor and airfield.
Since 72 percent of France's all imports move southward through the Indian Ocean, at least seven french frigates watch the sealanes at all times, with frequent support from the 32,000-ton aircraft carriers Foch and Clemenceau and several missile cruisers and destroyers. France also uses the port and airfield of Mayotte in the Comoro Islands.
Djibouti is squeezed between Somalia and Ethiopia. Ethiopia operates a century-old rail line from Addis Ababa, its capital, to the port of Djibouti.
France, by agreement with the government of Djibouti (after the latter became independent in 1977), keeps an elite defense force of about 6,000 Foreign Legionnaires, Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel in the torridly hot desert enclave. Also, on request. French officers advise the 2,500-man Djibouti Army.
The Muslim President of Djibouti, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, is a former colonial politician whose first official visit after his inauguration was to the US. He is a member of the Somalia-oriented Issa ethnic group, which with the Ethiopia-oriented Afars, make up most of the population of nearly 350,000, including 35,000 Afra, Issa, and Eritrean refugees from the recent Ethiopian-Somali war and the continuing, Arab-backed Eritrean nationalist war against Marxist Ethiopia' Soviet-and Cuban-supported Army.
Djibouti's greatest asset is simply that it is such a strategic piece of real estate. Its free port, which can accommodate large warship and the smaller variety of supertankers, services ships of all nations except Israel, whose trade was no longer welcomed after Djibouti (formerly called French Somaliland and the French Territory of the Afars and Israel joined the Arab League.
Saudi Arabia pledged $70 million in aid to stabilize the territory in 1977 while the war raged around it. But Western officials say they believe only a fraction of the sun has been spent so far -- for Muslim school roads, and hydropower projects.Libya, Iran and other Arab states also have helped.
French officials speaking privately, approve the idea of maintaining or even increasing US air and naval visits, each of which cleared the Djibouti government on a case-to-case basis. However, they point out any significantly higher US military profit must be arranged directly between the US and Djibouti, since the French themselves are officially guests and may be only temporary ones at that.
Frenchmen," says one experienced American resident of Djibouti, "are an accepted part of the local scene. But American military personnel stationed ashore would draw notice and might be politically destabilizing because of the area's explosive ethnic and political pressures."
Us aid to Djibouti began in 1978 with [Word Illegible] supplies for war refugees worth $1.6 million. Total US help this year is worth $3.2 million including development aid for the training port workers and testing of Djibouti's volcanic soil and underground water for farming potential. Further projects are being studied.
Next month, US aid officials plan to deliver to Djibouti a converted Navy [ Word Illegible] landing ship to use as a much-needed ferry boat. The ship already has been hopefully christened "Le Bac de La Paix" (The Ferry boat of Peace).