The Southern Red Sea region has a key role in global energy security. The Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is one of the world’s most important chokepoints for trade flows, and occupies a central role in the Indian Ocean’s routes. Currently, China relies on oil imports from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, whose chokepoints are under the military protection of the US Navy.
At the same time, the region presents several security threats and is characterised by severe instability. First, piracy along the Somali coast is one of the major threats, which endangers oil exports worldwide. Second, terrorism from the Somali group al-Shabaab contributes to regional instability by threatening bordering nations such as Kenya (see the most recent al-Shabaab attack on a joint Kenyan-US naval and air force base in Lamu of January 2020). Finally, the region is witnessing the escalation of Middle Eastern tensions. The most important issues in the area are the war in Yemen, the increasing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia/US, and tensions between Turkey/Qatar and Saudi Arabia/UAE, which could all result in further insecurity.
In this context, the creation of a Chinese maritime network across the Indian Ocean with the final goal of becoming a maritime power, usually referred to as the String of Pearls Strategy, has the potential to impact current power relations. According to the official Chinese narrative, investment in port projects and activities are part of the development of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has resulted in Chinese involvement in the development of port projects along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, such as Koh Kong Nee Port in Cambodia or Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, and in the Southern Red Sea, such as in Djibouti. Several scholars suggest that China is seeking to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean, placing units of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in key locations.
In 2016, China concluded negotiations with Djibouti to position a military support base in the port of Djibouti, the first overseas PLAN base. This location, which also hosts American, French, Indian and Japanese bases, offers third countries’ actors the opportunity to closely monitor and defend ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Due to the geographical proximity to Somalia and the ongoing piracy threat from its shores, several countries are contributing to anti-piracy operations, amongst which China has taken a prominent role. The Chinese naval forces are being deployed in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden, leading to a shift in the role of the Chinese navy from national coastal protection to a global blue water navy. This shift has not gone unnoticed, and the US and Japan appeared concerned by the deployment of Chinese submarines, which would boost China’s ability to project power in the Indian Ocean and Southern Red Sea. More instances of Chinese military presence in the area, such as the military escort of ships through the Bab e-Mandeb Strait, together with the growing involvement of China with nations in the region, suggest a trend of militarisation of BRI investment.
In recent years, Eritrea has also attracted China’s attention. During the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia sparked in 1998, China sold military equipment to both nations, but pragmatically protected its economic interests in Ethiopia, which is now one of the major recipients of Chinese infrastructural investment (see the Light Rail and the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railway as examples). Nonetheless, China played a central role in the mitigation of the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2017. Currently, Eritrea is under the sphere of influence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which operate a military port in Eritrea and a military base in Somalia. Nonetheless, tensions between the UAE and China are unlikely, as the Emirates are participating in the BRI, thus reducing the risk of future confrontations.
In relation to the current tensions in the Middle East, it is worth noting that China has carried out naval military training exercises with both Saudi Arabia (November 2019) and Iran (together with Russia in December 2019). These drills came at a time of increasing tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia and the US and Iran and have led the US to strengthen its military presence. China’s maritime investment, together with the PLAN increasing activities in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden suggest not only an interest in protecting China’s national security interests and the country’s investment, but also the altering of the environment in which the US and its allies have been operating. The growing geopolitical influence China has in the region is leading the US to evaluate possible responses, such as considering the deployment of special envoys in the Red Sea.
Although maritime infrastructure with Chinese participation is dual-use, meaning it can be used for both commercial and military activities, China’s military presence in the area is currently significantly limited. At these early stages, it is difficult to predict whether increased Chinese military presence will have an impact on dynamics in the region. China has retained a pragmatic approach to its diplomatic and economic relations with all the main actors in the Southern Red Sea, having relations with Turkey (which has a military base in Somalia), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti alike. It is important to keep monitoring Chinese engagement in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean more broadly, as an increased militarisation of Chinese projects to secure and defend their investment remains a possibility. China could pursue a security strategy based on leveraging its infrastructural investment for political clout, thus possibly expanding its military presence.