China is the rising world power. This much is clear, but nowhere is that reality felt more than behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. The global hegemony of the United States is being challenged, and the contest is perfectly encapsulated in what’s happening now in the small African nation of Djibouti.
Strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal, Djibouti is home to both U.S. and Chinese military bases, and the two are only miles apart. The U.S. base houses around 4,000 military personnel and is used as a launching pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.
On Tuesday, Reuters highlighted how the situation at a key port in Djibouti has U.S. officials worrying over China’s growing reach:
“Last month, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012.
“DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration.”
It also described the reaction in Washington at a session of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee:
“During a U.S. congressional hearing on Tuesday, which was dominated by concerns about China’s role in Africa, lawmakers said they had seen reports that Djibouti seized control of the port to give it to China as a gift.”
Speaking before lawmakers, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. commander in Africa, warned that the military’s ability to resupply and refuel ships would be greatly affected if China restricted access to the port:
“If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant.”
He also suggested there would be “more” such power projections from China in the coming days:
“There are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast…So Djibouti happens to be the first — there will be more.”
For China’s part, the country’s Foreign Ministry has rejected the notion that China would exclude a third party from having access to the port and asked the U.S. to keep an open mind.
“We hope that the U.S. side can objectively and fairly view China’s development and China-Africa cooperation,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press briefing.
At the congressional hearing on Tuesday, General Waldhauser pointed out that the U.S. was entering new territory in terms of physically competing with China over resources on the ground:
“China has been on the African continent for quite some time, but we as a combatant command have not dealt with it in terms of a strategic interest.”
And it’s territory the military is entering slowly. “We are taking baby steps in that regard,” Waldhauser said.
All this cautiousness speaks directly to what’s happening here. One power, the United States, is sensing a legitimate threat from another, China. And in the case of Djibouti, the proximity is forcing tensions out into the open.
While giving a talk on U.S.-Africa relations at George Mason University on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Djibouti “a very critical trading route for the world’s economy and a critical partner in securing that trading route.”
He also compared the United States’ and China’s approaches toward African nations:
“The United States pursues, develops sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens rule of law, and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet. We partner with African countries by incentivizing good governance to meet long term security and development goals.”
Tillerson said this model “stands in stark contrast to China’s approach, which encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.”
This depiction settles nicely into the grander narrative of China as one of the world’s “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.” That’s the picture painted by Secretary of Defense James Mattis back in January.
He was unveiling a broad new strategy at the Defense Department, one that shifted focus away from terrorism.
“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today,” Mattis said, “but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security.” The defense secretary’s comments echo those of President Donald Trump in a speech on national security in December.
In that speech, Trump noted that “whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a new era of competition.” Indeed, and the fact of it is very much on display at the south end of the Red Sea.