Dehai News Interests of Non-Regional Actors in Suez Canal/Red Sea/Gulf of Aden Region

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Date: Friday, 03 May 2019

David Shinn

Towards a Collective Approach in the Red Sea: Opportunities and Challenges

Hosted by Martti Ahtisaari Centre

Amman, Jordan

26-27 April 2019


A non-regional actor can be any country that is not a littoral state along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, not one of the Gulf States, and not a country in the Horn of Africa; these are all regional states.  When considering both the commercial shipping and security implications of the Red Sea, it is essential to include the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden in the discussion and appreciate that the Red Sea also has important implications for shipping and military activity in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. 

There are three sets of non-regional actors in the Suez Canal/Red Sea/Gulf of Aden region: those that have both significant commercial shipping and security interests, those that have limited commercial shipping and security interests, and those that have only significant commercial shipping interests.  Those that have significant commercial shipping and security interests include the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, Turkey, and the European Union collectively, but especially France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Italy.  With the possible exception of the United States, Russia, and Turkey, the primary interest of these states is commercial shipping rather than military access.  While the United States, Russia, and Turkey have important shipping interests in the region, their security interests, especially for the United States, may outweigh their commercial interests. 

Non-regional countries that have more limited commercial shipping and security interests in the region include Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, South Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines, and Iran.  Their commercial interests are tied to flag vessels that pass through the Red Sea and some degree of dependence on imports and exports transiting the region.  Their security interests are related to their participation in one or more of four naval task forces dealing with counter-piracy, maritime security, and counterterrorism.  Iran is an exception and operated independently of the anti-piracy task forces.

The third category consists of non-regional states that only have significant commercial shipping interests in the Red Sea region.  This group includes Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Hong Kong, Malta, Bahamas, and Cyprus.  The flag vessels of these non-regional countries are among the twenty largest shippers by tonnage that pass through the Red Sea.  They and vessels flying the flag of other countries cited above or even those not in the top twenty obviously have a vested interest in passage through the Red Sea. 

The primary interest of all three sets of actors is keeping open and maintaining access to this critical sea lane between the Gulf of Aden and Mediterranean Sea for commercial shipping and/or military purposes.  In terms of policy, this translates into support for regional political stability and opposition to any littoral state or group that tries to disrupt maritime passage through the Red Sea region by attacks from shore, ships, or mining of the waters. 

The interests of non-regional actors also argue for encouragement of and support for regional states to reach an understanding on the equitable exploitation and development of undersea gas, oil, and minerals before they result in regional conflict.  The U.S. Geological Survey has identified five petroleum systems and geologic assessment units.  It is estimated there are 5 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and 112 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the Red Sea Basin.  The Basin also holds an estimated 3 million metric tons of zinc, 500,000 to 700,000 metric tons of copper, 6,500 metric tons of silver, and 46 metric tons of gold. 

It is doubtful that any of the countries mentioned in these remarks is looking at the Red Sea region in a holistic way that takes into account maritime security, food security, under sea energy and mineral development, terrorism, piracy, political stability, environmental concerns, and potential migration and refugee flows.

Another important consideration, which is not covered in this paper, is the amount of economic assistance, financing, and foreign direct investment that is provided by the non-regional actors to the regional states and the amount of trade between them. 

Naval Task Forces in the Region

Let me explain briefly the naval task forces that operate or have recently operated in the region.  Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) was established after the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001 as a multinational naval force to disrupt terrorist organizations and their related illegal activities such as trafficking in weapons, narcotics, people, and charcoal.  Its area of operation is the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, and Gulf of Oman.  There are currently about seven ships in the Task Force.

Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) is a multinational naval force that began in 2009 with a counter-piracy mandate.  It subsequently expanded the mandate to combat armed robbery at sea, protect maritime commerce, and secure freedom of navigation.  Its area of responsibility is the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and northern Indian Ocean.  Now that piracy has almost disappeared, only a few ships participate in CTF 151.

The European Union Naval Force ATALANTA (EU NAVFOR) began in 2008 to protect vessels of the World Food Program and African Union Mission to Somalia against piracy, monitor fishing off Somalia, and strengthen maritime security.  It operates in the Western Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, and southern end of the Red Sea.  There are currently only two ships assigned to ATALANTA.

NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield began in 2008 in response to Somali piracy.  It operated in the Gulf of Aden, western Indian Ocean, and southern end of the Red Sea.  NATO terminated the mission at the end of 2016 because there were too few pirate attacks to justify its continuation.  The other three task forces continue to operate in the region but with reduced numbers of naval vessels. 

United States

The United States is the strongest naval power in the Indian Ocean with the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and a major Naval Support Facility and airfield on the island of Diego Garcia.  The U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti has about 4,000 personnel; the primary focus is counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.  Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar hosts about 10,000 U.S. personnel and Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates has another 3,800.  These military assets frequently rely on resupply through the Red Sea, which is also considered within their area of responsibility.  For this reason, the primary interest of the United States in the Red Sea may be military access rather than commercial shipping. 

U.S. naval vessels also participate actively in CTF 150 and CTF 151 and were heavily engaged in Operation Ocean Shield.  U.S. naval vessels hold periodic exercises with the navies of countries in the Red Sea region; in 2018, for example, U.S. and Egyptian ships conducted an exercise in the Red Sea to enhance interoperability and war-fighting readiness.  After a long hiatus, the United States and Egypt have resumed Operation Bright Star, which brings to Egypt land, naval, and air forces from a number of countries to train on counterterrorism and non-traditional warfare.  The United States is an important source of arms for Egypt and several of the Gulf States.  The U.S. Department of Defense pays close attention to the Red Sea region but is interested primarily in continuing access for its military assets. 

Red Sea political and economic issues are not currently a priority for U.S. foreign policy and there is no U.S. regional strategy, although the Department of Defense has certainly done military contingency planning for the region.  The bureaucratic division of authority in the Departments of Defense and State complicates the ability to focus on the Red Sea as a region.  Except for Egypt, which falls under the U.S. Central Command and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, AFRICOM and the U.S. Central Command have responsibility for different sides of the Red Sea as do the Bureau of African Affairs and Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department. 

The American military assets in the Indian Ocean region are used primarily to deal with problems in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq but can be mobilized quickly in the Red Sea in the event of a crisis there.  Continuing U.S. logistical support for and intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back their war in Yemen involves the United States in a contentious Gulf State issue.  It has also put the Trump administration in a difficult position vis-à-vis Congress where a majority of members oppose this U.S. entanglement.

Finally, the Trump administration’s national security policy that looks at China and Russia as strategic competitors has the effect of treating both countries’ actions in the Red Sea region and globally with deep concern and enormous suspicion.  Chinese-produced Rambo-like movies such as “Operation Red Sea” that rely on the cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fuel this concern as does a more assertive foreign policy by President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin.


             China’s growing naval power in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden has drawn the attention of the United States, India, European Union, and Japan.  The Maritime Silk Road, which is an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has an important security component.  Protection of Chinese shipping interests is its highest priority; 40 percent of China’s trade goes through the Suez Canal. 

China’s preoccupation with security began with its commitment beginning in 2008 to support the international anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden, usually providing two frigates and a supply ship that operate independently of the international task forces.  This engagement, compounded by the need to evacuate 36,000 Chinese from Libya in 2011, led to the decision to establish in Djibouti a military base that became operational in 2017.  Today, it probably hosts about 2,000 Chinese military personnel but has housing that could accommodate up to 10,000.

China is committed to continue its naval support for the anti-piracy operation although its interest today in this engagement is more related to training its naval personnel and protecting Chinese nationals in the region.  The PLAN has significantly increased its port calls in the region and in 2015 was used to evacuate more than 800 Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen’s port of Aden.  (“Operation Red Sea” is a highly fictionalized account of this evacuation.)

Chinese naval vessels now engage in exercises with navies of Red Sea littoral countries and non-regional navies.  In 2015, PLAN vessels exercised with the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, in 2018 with the EU Naval Force in the Gulf of Aden, and in 2019 with Egyptian and Russian forces in the Mediterranean.  China is a major source of arms for Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia and is looking to increase significantly sales to Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

China agrees with Western countries on the need for political stability in the Red Sea region but believes it can be accomplished through economic development.  China has a 40 percent stake in the oil sector of Sudan and South Sudan.  It has built and financed major infrastructure projects on the African side of the Red Sea, including Djibouti’s container terminal and the railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa.  China’s Huawei Marine has a joint venture with a UK-based company to install an underwater, high-speed internet cable system linking countries from Pakistan to Djibouti and along the Red Sea to France.

The China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) owns a 20 percent share in Maersk’s container facility in the Suez Canal’s Port Said.  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.  While these projects have primarily an economic focus, they can in crisis situations also have security implications.


India considers the Indian Ocean as its back yard, and, by extension, attaches considerable importance to the Red Sea.  It participated independently in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden but worked closely with CTF 151.  A significant percentage of India’s trade passes through the Suez Canal and Red Sea.  India has a 25 percent stake in the oil sector of Sudan and South Sudan.  Indian military analysts often express concern about “Chinese encirclement” as they discuss the role of China in the Indian Ocean.  In response to China’s military base in Djibouti, India sought basing rights in the Seychelles and Mauritius, so far without success. 

China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean has pushed India closer to both Japan and the United States.  India and Japan agreed in 2016 to establish the Asia Africa Growth Corridor that is addressing development priorities of African countries.   There is increasing India-Japan military cooperation involving both ground and naval forces.  In 2015, Japan became a permanent member of the annual India-United States Malabar naval exercise.  In 2019, the Indian and U.S. navies conducted an anti-submarine warfare exercise near Diego Garcia.

The first ever visit to Djibouti in 2017 by India’s president and promises to locate an Indian embassy in Djibouti and Eritrea underscore India’s concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.  While India is much more focused on the Indian Ocean than the Red Sea, it is paying increasing attention to this trade route.


Russia has stepped up its engagement in the Red Sea region in just the past several years.  Except for Egypt, its trade and economic relationships with countries in the Red Sea region are modest.  Russia has an important and long-standing relationship as a source of weapons for a number of countries, especially Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.  Russia holds regular military exercises with Egyptian forces and in 2017 deployed special forces on Egypt’s Libyan border to assist Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan militias, which both Russia and Egypt support. 

In 2008, Russia began participating independently in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and remained engaged as recently as 2018.  Russia held anti-piracy naval drills with Japan in the Gulf of Aden in 2016.  As other nations were establishing military bases in Djibouti, Russia also requested permission but was turned down.  Consequently, it began looking elsewhere.  Rumors that Russia planned to locate a military base in Somaliland appear to be inaccurate. 

In 2018, Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russia was in discussion with Eritrea for a “logistics center” in an Eritrean port with the purpose of boosting bilateral trade.  The Russian ambassador to Sudan confirmed in 2018 that Sudan offered Russia a fleet logistics center on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.  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.  These agreements occurred during the presidency of Omar al-Bashir; it is not clear if his recent removal will have any impact on them.  Russia’s principal interest appears to be guaranteed military access to the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden and some kind of permanent facility in the region to support Russian naval vessels. 


Japan is primarily concerned about its energy and economic security and the free flow of commerce through the Red Sea region.  But like India, Japan is also paying close attention to the growing influence of China in the region, especially the expansion of its sea power.  In 2011, the Japanese Self Defense Force established a base at Djibouti where it operates maritime patrol aircraft as part of the CTF 151 anti-piracy operation and is available to evacuate Japanese nationals from the region by visiting Japanese naval vessels.  There are currently about 200 Japanese personnel at the base.  China’s engagement in the wider Indian Ocean region has led to closer Japanese security ties with India and the United States, which indirectly impacts the Red Sea region.


Turkey’s impressive outreach to Africa since 2005 has been even more dramatic in the Red Sea region where it has an embassy in every African country and is arguably the most important non-regional actor in Somalia.  In 2017, Turkey added to its influence in Somalia by opening a military base in Mogadishu for training Somali soldiers.  The Turkish navy participates actively in CTF 150 and 151; it also engaged in Operation Ocean Shield.

Turkey 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.  Turkey’s alignment with Qatar, where it also has a military facility, and cordial relations with Iran put it at odds with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.  Those countries believe the arrangement at Suakin will eventually lead to its military use by Turkey and Qatar.  These agreements with Sudan occurred under the deposed Omar al-Bashir government; it is unclear if they will be affected by his departure.  Officials in the Arab countries sometimes suggest that Turkey’s increasing engagement in the Red Sea region raises the specter of the Ottoman Empire. 


France has interests in both security and commercial shipping through the Red Sea.  It has a long-standing military base in Djibouti, which has been drawn down to about 1,000 personnel.  The base has supported its anti-piracy and counterterrorism contributions in the region.  France participates in CTF 150 and CTF 151 in addition to ATALANTA.  The French navy conducts regular naval exercises with the Egyptian navy.

It relies on the Suez Canal and Red Sea to resupply its Overseas Departments of Réunion and Mayotte in the western Indian Ocean.  France has a naval base with a frigate and several small support ships at Réunion and a small Foreign Legion detachment on Mayotte.  Together with some other small islands in the southern Indian Ocean, France controls 2.5 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zone. 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy dominated the Red Sea region and beyond from the 19th century until the late 1960s.  While the UK relies heavily on commerce transiting the Suez Canal and Red Sea (it imports 90 percent of its oil from the Middle East), its security role in the region is now much diminished.  It does participate in CTF 150, CTF 151, and ATALANTA and was active in Operation Ocean Shield.  It can also mobilize elite forces quickly as it did in 2018 when it deployed 20 troops from the Special Boat Service to protect UK-flagged vessels after Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked an oil tanker in the Red Sea.

Italy, Spain and Germany

Italy, Spain, and Germany depend heavily on imports and exports through the Suez Canal and Red Sea.  All three countries also play significant security roles in the Red Sea region.  Italy participates in CTF 150 and ATALANTA and was part of Operation Ocean Shield.  Italy has a military base in Djibouti with a capacity of up to 200 personnel, although the number varies over time.  Spain participates in CTF 150, CTF 151, and ATALANTA and contributed to Operation Ocean Shield.  Spain does not have a base in Djibouti but at any given time has 20-30 military personnel stationed there.  Germany participates in CTF 150, CTF 151, and ATALANTA.  It normally has 20-30 military personnel in Djibouti to support these operations but does not have a base. 


Many countries have an interest in what happens in the Red Sea region, mostly because of the need for uninterrupted shipping.  A much smaller number of non-regional actors are in a position to have a significant impact on developments in the region because of their military power.  While all of these countries seek the same goal—to keep the waterway open--, their policies are not always harmonious and some of them have taken sides in regional conflicts.  The increase in non-regional actors who have significant security and shipping interests in the Red Sea region has further complicated an already complicated geo-political situation. 



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