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Competition in the Red Sea:

Perspectives from the African Side

7 March 2019
Arlington, Virginia

David H. Shinn
George Washington University


My opening remarks will focus on the activities of China and Russia in the Red Sea
region from the geographic perspective of the African side. I will touch on the role of France,
Turkey, and Egypt. Finally, I will briefly mention some of the other players and issues that the
United States must take into account. The bottom line is that the political and security issues of
the Red Sea region have become enormously more complicated and, as a result, could generate
more conflict.


The Maritime Silk Road component of President Xi Jinping’s major foreign policy effort,
the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), passes through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, Red Sea and Suez
Canal. China attaches huge importance to this connection between the Indian Ocean to the
Mediterranean because of its commitment to the BRI and the need to ensure access to and to
protect these sea lanes that carry so much of China’s trade. China does not want to outsource
sea lane protection to the United States or other naval powers.

In the Suez Canal’s Port Said, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) owns a 20
percent share in Maersk’s container facility under a 49-year concession. COSCO invested $186
million in a joint venture to operate and manage the Suez Canal Container Terminal in East Port
at the northern end of the canal. The Chinese Harbor State Company invested $219 million to
construct a quay at the southern end of the canal. Some 86 Chinese companies have invested
more than $1.1 billion in the new Suez Canal Economic Zone.

China is the largest trading partner and contractor for infrastructure projects in
countries on the African side of the Red Sea. For example, Chinese companies recently
completed the Djibouti to Addis Ababa and Mombasa to Nairobi railways. China is building new
port facilities in Djibouti and recently obtained a degree of operational control over Djibouti’s
Doraleh Container Terminal. A Chinese company just signed a contract with Ethiopia and
Djibouti to build a gas pipeline from Ethiopia’s Ogaden basin to the southeast corner of Djibouti
next to its border with Somaliland.

It is an important source of foreign direct investment in Sudan and South Sudan, where
it holds a 40 percent stake in the oil sector, and in Ethiopia but not in the rest of the African Red
Sea region when compared to the collective Western presence. Nor is China a significant
source of aid as compared to Western countries.

Because of the separation of Sudan and South Sudan and ongoing conflict in the later,
the two Sudans account today for only about one percent of China’s imported oil. Sudan once
accounted for at least 5 percent of China’s imported oil.

China is now operating its first military base outside China in Djibouti with an estimated
couple thousand personnel. China is continuing participation in UN peacekeeping operations in
Sudan, which includes a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) helicopter detachment, and in South
Sudan, where China deployed its first combat battalion in a peacekeeping operation. China also
has an ongoing commitment to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, which usually
consists of two frigates and a supply ship. Since China began participation in the anti-piracy
operation in 2008, it has exponentially increased the number of PLA Navy port calls in the
region, including visits by the naval hospital ship, Peace Ark. China takes the opportunity of its
naval presence to engage in naval exercises with local navies and even those from other regions
such as the European Union Naval Force as it did in the Gulf of Aden in 2018. This constitutes a
significant increase in its military engagement in the Red Sea region.

As China’s physical presence and interests in the region grow, so do its security
challenges. Chinese personnel have periodically been kidnapped and killed while operating in
the oil fields of Sudan. in 2007, nine Chinese energy prospection personnel were killed in
Ethiopia’s Ogaden region by the dissident Ogadeni National Liberation Front. In 2015, PLA Navy
ships assigned to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden evacuated 225 foreign nationals
and almost 600 Chinese from Yemen’s port of Aden. Also in 2015, an al-Shabaab attack in
Mogadishu killed a Chinese security official at the Chinese embassy. In 2016, two Chinese
peacekeepers assigned to the UN mission were killed and several injured in South Sudan during
a mortar attack.

China is a major source of both conventional weapons and small arms and light
weapons for Sudan and an important supplier for Ethiopia, Egypt, and South Sudan. It has also
sold unmanned aerial vehicles to Egypt. For brief periods, China provided arms to Sudan and
Ethiopia when UN arms sanctions were in place. China played a role in helping Sudan’s Military
Industrial Corporation produce light weapons and ammunition. Increasingly, Chinese weapons
along with those from other countries are appearing in conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and

China is also taking the lead in the region’s IT world. Huawei Marine’s joint venture with
a UK-based company is installing an underwater, high-speed internet cable system linking
Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Seychelles, Djibouti, other countries along the Red Sea
and France. It is expected to be in service by 2020. Huawei is also working hard to sell its 5G
technology to countries in the region; Ericsson and Nokia are serious competitors but American
companies are absent. Ethiopia recently announced it will launch its first earth observatory
satellite with China footing 75 percent of the $8 million cost and providing technical assistance.

All of this activity is aimed at expanding China’s power in the region and beyond and
creating a “sphere of influence” in the name of a “community of common destiny,” one of Xi
Jinping’s favorite themes.


Russia’s relations with Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, have remained strong since
the beginning of the Cold War. It has been trying to make a comeback in the rest of the African
Red Sea basin countries but internal problems and/or more salient foreign policy issues
elsewhere distract Russia.

Except for Egypt, Russia’s trade with the region is of little importance and foreign direct
investment is not significant. Arms sales are and continue to constitute the most important
part of the relationship. In 2017, Egypt began receiving the first of 46 Mig-29M fighter aircraft
and 19 Ka-52 attack helicopters. Russia reportedly has an agreement with Egypt that its
military aircraft can use Egypt’s bases and airspace. Russia’s position in the region is further
muddied because it is relying increasingly on private military contractors whose ties to the
Kremlin are not always clear. For example, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented
in 2019 that private Russian companies are training the army in Sudan but insisting these
companies have nothing to do with Russian state bodies. Sudanese sources say that the
Russian Wagner Group is one of the companies, which is also engaged in the Central African

The Russian ambassador to Sudan confirmed in 2018 that Sudan offered Russia a fleet
logistics center on the Red Sea and said talks are ongoing. In 2019, Sudan and Russia signed a
draft military agreement that the Sudanese side said would pave the way for Russia to build a
military base on its Red Sea coast; the Russian side said the agreement only facilitates the entry
of Russian naval ships at Sudanese ports. Russia earlier asked Djibouti for permission to
establish a military base and was turned down. Russia reportedly asked Somaliland for
permission to establish a naval facility in Berbera; the response is not known. In 2018, Foreign
Minister Lavrov said Russia is in discussion with Eritrea for a “logistics center” in an Eritrean
port on the Red Sea to boost bilateral trade.

In 2008, Russia began participating in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden
independent of any established task force. Russian ships continued their anti-piracy
engagement as recently as mid-2018. Russia held a joint naval exercise with China in the Black
Sea/Eastern Mediterranean in 2015 and held joint anti-piracy naval drills with Japan in the Gulf
of Aden in 2016.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation, ROSATOM, has signed nuclear power agreements
with Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya. Russia’s primary security interest in the region appears to be
guaranteed access to the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden and some kind of permanent facility in the
region to support Russian naval vessels.


As of last summer, France had almost 1,500 troops assigned to its military base in
Djibouti, but is phasing the number down to about 1,000. France regularly uses the base to test
equipment in hot weather and under desert conditions; last fall it tested medium range missiles
in the Red Sea.

In the western Indian Ocean, France has a naval base with a frigate and several small
support ships on the island of Reunion, a French Overseas Department, and a small Foreign
Legion detachment on the island of Mayotte, another Overseas Department. Access through
the Red Sea is important to supporting these military facilities and maintaining contact with its
two Overseas Departments in the Indian Ocean. France holds regular joint military exercises in
the Red Sea with Egyptian forces, most recently in December 2018.


In recent years, Turkey has significantly stepped up its engagement in the region,
especially in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Turkey is the second largest source of foreign direct
investment in Ethiopia after China. Turkey is arguably the single most important bilateral actor
in Somalia today, especially following the establishment of a military training base in
Mogadishu for Somali soldiers.

Turkey has reached an agreement with Sudan to rebuild and lease Suakin island in the
Red Sea, including the port. Qatar, which is allied with Turkey, reportedly signed a $4 billion
agreement with Sudan to develop and manage the port at Suakin. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and
Egypt believe this will eventually lead to military use of Suakin port by Turkey.


Egypt, which is allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is deeply concerned about Turkish
and Qatar activities and intentions in the Red Sea. Although distracted in recent years by

internal crises, Egypt has a long-standing policy of approaching politics in the region on the
basis of their impact on Nile water issues. This applies especially to Sudan and Ethiopia, the
two most important upstream Nile water countries, and results in Egyptian policies that oppose
both countries when they are perceived as negatively impacting Cairo’s Nile water interests.
The Egyptian-Sudanese border dispute over the Halaib Triangle also impacts Egyptian polices on
Red Sea issues.

Other Players and Issues

--Italy and Japan have small military facilities in Djibouti.

--India is a major Indian Ocean power and very concerned about growing Chinese naval power
in the region.

--Israel has an outlet to the Gulf of Aqaba and hence to the Red Sea. It is obviously interested in
free passage through both the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb.

--Iran currently has no friends in the Red Sea region except for Houthi-controlled territory in
Yemen. This has not always been the case and the time will come when Iran is again a
significant player in the Red Sea basin.

--Eritrea is an important player because it blocks Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea and the port
of Assab is the location of a significant military facility used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

--The most significant positive development in the region over the past year is the ongoing
effort to normalize relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is one issue where a Gulf State,
the UAE, made a positive contribution by encouraging both parties to reconcile.

--The UAE is establishing a military base in the port of Berbera in Somaliland, which in 1991
declared unilateral independence from Somalia, which continues to claim Somaliland.

--Many countries contributed naval vessels to help end Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Red
Sea and in the western Indian Ocean; some are still around and others have left.

--Finally, there is the question of who will control and develop the rich and recoverable oil, gas,
and mineral resources (copper, zinc, silver, and gold) in the undersea Red Sea basin.