The Red Sea: A magnet for outside powers vying for its control

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Red Sea Dynamics

By David H. Shinn

Posted on Friday, 27 November 2020 11:52
A general view of the Suez Canal is seen from Al Salam "Peace" bridge on the Ismalia desert road before the opening ceremony of the New Suez Canal, in Egypt, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The overriding concern of non-regional actors in the Red Sea arena is freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden. In this final part of our series, we look at the constant quest and struggle for control of the Red Sea waterway by non-regional actors and their impact.

This is part 9/9 of a series.

The Suez Canal handles more than 9% of international trade compared to 5% for the Panama Canal.  European countries, North Africa, and major Asian trading nations such as China, Japan, South Korea, and India are heavily dependent on exports and imports that pass through the Suez Canal and Red Sea.

This includes petroleum products headed for Europe from the Gulf states and crude from North Africa and Sudan/South Sudan destined for Asia. A few countries such as the United States and perhaps Russia and Turkey are more concerned that the waterway remain open for access by naval vessels. Between 35 and 45 American warships transit the Suez Canal and Red Sea each year.

‘Critical passage’ has not always been open

While this critical passage has remained open in recent years, this has not always been the case. The 1956 Suez crisis resulted in closure of the Canal for six months. It closed again at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967 and remained closed until 1975. The occasional planting of mines off the coast of Yemen and firing on passing ships have also raised concerns about freedom of navigation.

Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the southern end of the Red Sea, and wider Indian Ocean posed the most serious recent threat to commercial shipping in the region. Between 2010 and 2014, there were more than 350 attempted or successful attacks on commercial vessels.

READ MORE Maritime piracy and Somalia’s global canker

This situation resulted in a response by navies from many parts of the world, but especially Europe, Asia, Middle East, the United States, and Russia to end the threat. Measures taken by the owners of commercial ships and the naval escort missions have largely neutralised the Somali piracy problem. Although not so much a threat to shipping, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates primarily out of Yemen, and al-Shabaab in Somalia continue to attack Western and allied interests in the region.

Changing powers in the region

The early post-World War II power in the region, the United Kingdom, adopted a policy in the late 1960s to pull its military forces back to east of Suez. It only recently reversed this policy by opening a naval base in Bahrain and a military training facility on Oman. It also has about 400 military personnel stationed in Kenya. France maintains its military base in Djibouti dating back to the colonial era, although it has downsized the facility.

READ MORE Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

France also continues to support through the Red Sea its overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte in the southwestern Indian Ocean. The United States established a major military facility on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in the 1970s, has an extensive naval and air force presence in the Persian Gulf linked to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in 2002 opened a counterterrorism base in Djibouti that now numbers more than 4,000 personnel.

An undated file photo shows Diego Garcia, the largest island in Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966. REUTERS/HO/U.S. Navy

The US has another 600 to 800 forces in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab and a smaller contingent on the coast near Lamu in Kenya. Focused on counterterrorism and anti-piracy operations, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan have established small, permanent military facilities in Djibouti.

Turkey, motivated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dreams, has also become militarily active in the region.

Djibouti became even more crowded in 2017 when China, emphasising that it needed to support its ongoing anti-piracy naval task force (usually two frigates and a supply ship) in the Gulf of Aden, opened a significant military base that may host as many as 2,000 personnel. China’s only overseas military base, it has resulted in Western concerns about Beijing’s intentions in the region.

Russia sought permission for a base in Djibouti but failed to receive approval. It then began discussions with Eritrea and Sudan for a military facility or arrangement. Sudan recently authorized Russia to establish a “naval supply station” for the next twenty-five years at Port Sudan where several patrol boats that comprise the Sudanese Navy are also based. Russian naval ships reportedly can use the Chinese naval quay at Djibouti.

READ MORE Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

Turkey, motivated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dreams, has also become militarily active in the region. Turkey has a base in Mogadishu, Somalia with about 200 personnel to train the Somali National Army and another in Qatar with 5,000 Turkish troops.

Until the recent change of government in Sudan, Turkey was rehabilitating the Red Sea port of Suakin that was to include a naval dock as part of a $4bn project funded by Qatar. That project is now on hold.

Other non-littoral Red Sea players

Other important non-littoral Red Sea players are India, Iran, and South Korea.

India is focusing its naval influence more broadly in the Indian Ocean, partly to counter China. India and Japan just signed an agreement that gives Indian naval vessels access to Japan’s base in Djibouti in exchange for Japanese access to India’s military installations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have, at least for the time being, managed to minimise Iran’s previously significant presence in the Red Sea region by putting pressure on governments in the Horn of Africa.

South Korea has chosen not to engage militarily in the region other than contribute naval ships to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

‘Conflicting objectives’

Without even getting into non-regional economic interests in the littoral countries of the Red Sea, there are today many actors in the security arena that have both conflicting objectives and a universal goal of maintaining freedom of navigation. The Trump administration’s Africa policy treats China and Russia as strategic competitors and looks for ways, so far with little success, to counter their influence.

READ MORE USA – Africa: President Biden’s top three challenges

China’s military base in Djibouti, Xi Jinping’s more assertive foreign policy, and the release of the government-supported and highly nationalistic filmOperation Red Sea,” a fictional account of the People’s Liberation Army Navy evacuation in 2015 of some 800 Chinese and foreign nationals from Aden, has fuelled US concerns about China’s motives in the region.

Russia’s Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, has been active in Sudan, which raises additional concerns.  China and Russia have, of course, a different perspective on these regional developments.

China – Russia: ‘the most worrisome concern’

From a Western perspective, the military presence of China and Russia are perceived as the most worrisome concern, primarily because their long-term goals are not clear. China has stated emphatically that it intends to become a global naval power. That means it must seek additional naval support facilities.

READ MORE Is China weaponizing ports built along the Belt Road Initiative?

Russia continues to seek military support facilities in the Red Sea region but is relying on the shadowy Wagner Group to expand its military influence on land. Major European countries have increased their military presence in the region to help ensure freedom of navigation. India is shoring up its ties with Japan and the United States to counter Chinese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean. Turkey, aligned with Qatar, is seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although currently sidelined, Iran will almost certainly try to reassert itself in the region.

The good news in this contentious arena is the unified desire by all non-regional actors to keep this vital passageway open to shipping. This has resulted in joint efforts to end Somali piracy and to combat on-going terrorist threats originating in Yemen and Somalia. Even Iran participated in the anti-piracy operation but has not been helpful in combatting terrorism.

Only time will tell if this overriding goal will result in the non-regional actors becoming a positive presence in the Red Sea area or whether their parochial differences will exacerbate existing conflicts among the littoral states.

*David H. Shinn is Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, former US ambassador to Burkina Faso (1987-90) and Ethiopia (1996-99).

For part 1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan…Conflict or cooperation in the Red Sea?

For part 2: Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

For part 3: The Red Sea: ‘A vital artery for the world economy’

For part 4: The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea 

For part 5: Yemen: What happens here sends waves all across the Red Sea

For part 6: Somalia: Caught in the middle of a deeply divided region

For part 7: To avoid another Yemen, the Red Sea needs fresh governance

For part 8: Sudan – Red Sea basin: Four ways to make or break stability

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