This month, Chinese naval vessels departed the port of Zhanjiang for the East African country of Djibouti, the site of China’s first overseas military base, which is set to begin operations later this year. An editorial in the state-run Global Times trumpeted the deployment, confirming that China will base troops there, which is a stunning development—it’s the first time that a major Asian power outside of the U.S. (or Russia) has extended its military and logistics reach into the developing world.
Beijing’s opening of its Djibouti base shows that there is a Great Game underway in the crucial Red Sea corridor, which links the markets of the West to the oil exports of the Persian Gulf—and which will be symbolized now by the bursting container ships of a resurgent China, the newest power on the Middle East chessboard.
China’s move has not gone unnoticed: from Suez to the Bab al Mandeb, nations great and small are claiming space to protect new interests and to assert old prerogatives, with the Red Sea as a focal point for the expanding economic and security interests in a region critical to the fortunes of Washington’s friends.
In China’s case, trade and the flag are growing in tandem. The China Merchant Group is the leading investor in the creation of a multi-purpose port facility at Doraleh and the focus of a 50-square-kilometer free-trade zone, complementing the recently completed and Chinese funded railway linking the new port to land-locked Addis Ababa. Li Xiaopeng has compared the multi-billion dollar plan to “Shekou”—China’s legendary free trade zone, which boasts the world’s third largest port. “We will use our experience in Shekou and adjust the model to local conditions,” he said.
Until recently, the Red Sea was an American lake, having claimed that status since Russia withdrew from its naval base in Yemen in the early 1990s. From the Suez Canal to the Bab al Mandeb Straits, which guard the entrance to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, U.S. naval power reigned supreme. That power was underpinned by the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, assuring an uninterrupted flow of oil to the U.S. and, increasingly, its allies. The Red Sea symbolized the security of the route—with its $700 billion of annual maritime trade.
But those days are now gone. While Washington is hardly retreating from the region, and while U.S. military assets around the Red Sea remain robust, the increasing intention and ability of others—China, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Japan and France—to assert and protect lucrative commercial and newfound security interests is now a fact of life. Djibouti is the unlikely beneficiary of this attention.
While the country of less than one million is little more than an impoverished spit of sand guarding the Bab and Mandeb and the maritime route from Asia to the Mediterranean, Djibouti is now a vital part of the calculations of the world’s great, and emerging, powers. The reason is not simply because Djibouti is a geographic nexus, but because it has offered itself as an equal opportunity logistics depot that can be purchased by one and all (with the exception of Iran) for the right price. That Djibouti is open for business is not a secret: By last count, four countries have established, or are about to establish, military bases in the country, which is about the size of Wales.
France, a former colonial power whose reach into the region is confirmed in its history, was once Djibouti’s largest military tenant. The United States, which operates Camp Lemonnier, boasts a cohort of some 5,000 servicemen and women and civilians, many who operate drones for surveillance and counterterrorism operations. The camp also hosts special-operations forces and intelligence-monitoring units that assess threats from Somalia and Yemen to the Horn of Africa. Djibouti also hosts a military contingent from Japan—a small force whose presence is meant, like China’s naval presence, to buttress the international community’s anti-piracy flotilla. No one need be fooled: Japan’s symbolic contingent of 180 is a concrete expression of the island nation’s desire to conduct operations far from home in order to meet China’s similarly expanding military capabilities. “China is putting money into new infrastructure and raising its presence in Djibouti,” a Japanese government official confirmed to one reporter, “and it is necessary for Japan to gain more influence.”
In addition to the U.S., France, and China, Saudi Arabia is one of the most active new entrees in the broad expansion of naval operations in the Red Sea. In 2016, Riyadh signed a security pact with Djibouti, followed by recently negotiated base rights in Djibouti itself. Strong-armed by Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian parliament recently ratified Egypt’s agreement for Riyadh to reassume its sovereign control over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the southern approaches to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli port of Eilat—a confirmation that the Saudis view the Red Sea as a part of their own vital security interests.
As crucially, Saudi Arabia, long content to subcontract its maritime defense to Washington, is now conducting independent naval operations off the Yemeni coast as part of broad military operations directly against the Houthis in Yemen—and indirectly against Tehran. Dislodging Houthi-led forces from the Yemini port of al-Hudayah is widely seen as one of the key maritime objectives of the Saudi-Emirati military coalition that has been at war in Yemen for two years.
The Saudi presence is more than just notional: In April, Saudi forces destroyed an explosives-packed skiff targeting an Aramco oil distribution terminal in the Red Sea on the Saudi coast just north of Yemen. The Saudi statement that followed the operation stopped short of blaming Iran for launching the arms-laden skiff, but pointedly warned against those “standing behind Houthi militias working to threaten the security of waterways and sea facilities.”
Riyadh is not the only local player claiming space along the Red Sea perimeter. In February the UAE won parliamentary approval to establish a military base at the port of Berbera, in Somaliland. Under a 2015 agreement with Eritrea, the UAE established an air and naval base at the port of Assab from where it runs military operations in Yemen, only 37 km away.
Nor surprisingly, Israel has been watching all of this very closely, and is reported to have patrol boats based on Eritrean islands just north of the Strait, in the Dahlak Archipelago, deployed to interdict Iranian networks smuggling weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.
But all of these regional efforts, while important, pale in comparison to the massive and unprecedented commercial and security initiative now being undertaken by China. The region, a tangle of unrest, instability, and misery, is a key arena to watch China’s transformation into a global maritime military and economic power, a real life laboratory where China Inc.’s “win-win” brand of economic cooperation and mercantile commercial and trade interests are center stage.
Then too, while U.S. strategic assets are being consumed by never-ending wars, China’s security and commercial interests in the region are expanding in a symbiotic embrace. A stone’s throw from U.S. Camp Lemonnier, the Chinese are building their own naval facility to accommodate a growing military presence of up to 10,000. The new base is a signal that China is not only willing to sustain its participation in international maritime anti-piracy and peacekeeping operations, but also signals its intent to protect its ties with a large expatriate community—a vital part of Beijing’s signature “Belt and Road” trade and development plan.
The reaction to all of this in Washington is entirely predictable. The United States can manage the increased activities of longtime allies, like France and Japan, but it is decidedly uneasy with China’s East Africa presence. “We’ve never had a base of, let’s just say a peer competitor, as close as this [Chinese] one happens to be,” explained AFRICOM commander General Thomas Waldhauser. “So there’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of growing going on. Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns.”
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group. For more than four decades, he has been engaged as a commentator and participant in key political, economic, and security challenges across the Middle East and North Africa region.