US, China can avoid tension in Red Sea while adopting cautious approach
Kerry Boyd Anderson
US-China tensions are heating up. In the midst of this growing global rivalry, the two countries are more quietly engaging in strategic competition in the Red Sea region.
For years, US officials and experts have expressed concerns about growing Chinese economic and diplomatic influence in Africa, but they seldom viewed it as a significant area of geostrategic competition. There were several dialogues designed to encourage cooperation between the US and China in Africa during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That changed when China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 — only a few miles from the US’ Camp Lemonnier. The Chinese base dramatically increased the risk that the Red Sea region could become a theater for US-China rivalry.
The two countries take different approaches toward influence in the Red Sea region, and they have both competing interests and shared concerns. The dynamics of US-China interaction will play an important role in the region’s future.
Washington sees the African side of the Red Sea primarily through a security lens. The US military initially acquired Camp Lemonnier after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to support counterterrorism missions. Other US interests include ensuring safe passage for shipping through the region’s waterways and countering piracy. It has both economic and security interests on the eastern side of the Red Sea.
Countering Chinese influence in the region is a more recent US goal, reflecting both China’s establishment of its Djibouti base and the deteriorating relations between the two countries. In December 2018, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton unveiled a new Africa strategy. He said that China and Russia were “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States” and identified countering threats from these two nations as the “second priority” of the US strategy in Africa. This fits into a wider global strategy that identifies Beijing as America’s primary rival in strategic competition. However, despite concerns about China’s base in Djibouti and its regional and global influence, the Trump administration has not focused significant attention on the Red Sea region.
China’s approach toward Africa, the Middle East and the Red Sea region in particular has long emphasized economic relations much more than security and military interests. These efforts are now wrapped into the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For many years, Beijing’s primary interests in the Red Sea region were to pursue trade relationships and secure access to resources. It also has a long-standing interest in safe shipping routes and joined multilateral efforts to combat piracy.
Its decision to project military power into the region is more recent and reflects its growing global ambitions. China is increasingly embracing its role as one of the world’s military superpowers, with the goal of developing sufficient capabilities to compete with the US. This includes developing a navy with global reach. While Beijing’s main military focus remains on East Asia and the Pacific, it also has ambitions for worldwide influence.
Today, China remains far behind the US in its global military capabilities. It currently cannot challenge America’s role as the dominant naval power, globally and in the Red Sea. At the same time, Washington is far behind China in terms of trade and investment relations with most Red Sea countries, and it lacks the type of state-driven economic agenda that has allowed Beijing to pursue the BRI. Both countries have their own unique advantages in projecting power and influence in the Red Sea region.
They also have mutual interests in the Red Sea. Both countries want to ensure safe routes for international shipping. While China does not share the US’ emphasis on counterterrorism in the region, it does not oppose it and has a general interest in regional stability. If the two powers seek to cooperate on areas of mutual interest and to avoid accidental or intentional tensions between their military forces in Djibouti, there is no reason why the Red Sea should be a source of potential superpower conflict.
China’s decision to project military power into the region is more recent and reflects its growing global ambitions.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
US-China rivalry in the Red Sea region is not a simple bipolar competition. Key littoral states, such as Saudi Arabia, and several other regional actors beyond the immediate Red Sea area — such as the UAE, Qatar and Turkey — are also projecting power and pursuing interests in the region. Littoral states plus Ethiopia seek to pursue their own interests and do not want to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing; they prefer to work with both countries in pursuit of their own best interests. This complexity could also help to limit the risks of confrontation between China and the US, as both countries have an interest in maintaining good relations with regional states.
While the close proximity of the militaries of two rival powers at a time of escalating tensions presents some risks, the Red Sea is unlikely to be a hotbed for US-China conflict, as long as both countries practice some caution and pragmatism. The Red Sea is a very different political environment than the South China Sea, where Washington and Beijing have strong, directly clashing interests.
— Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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