This piece is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through short articles that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is an integral part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Suez Canal, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden are essential to the success of the MSR and, consequently, to the BRI. This largely explains why China located its first and, so far, only foreign military base at Djibouti near the narrow Bab el-Mandeb passageway between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, has invested so much in port and warehouse construction, and stepped up its economic and political engagement in countries on both sides of the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden. But increased engagement leads to higher expectations by African and Arab governments, greater leverage and exposure for China, and complications for other great powers in the Red Sea region. China is treading carefully as it accommodates this evolving situation while trying to minimize new security responsibilities.
For this analysis, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden include the littoral states of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia/Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, and landlocked Ethiopia. The purpose is to provide an overview of China’s interests, engagement, and security strategy in the region. China’s principal interest is freedom of navigation through this critical waterway, which permits the fastest and most economical shipment of goods to/from Europe, North Africa, and part of the Middle East. Chinese ships account for one-tenth of the Suez Canal’s annual traffic volume. In 2020, China was the third largest market for European Union country exports (10.5%) and the largest source for EU imports (22.4%. China sees the region as central to its global security strategy and expanded reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China also seeks political and economic cooperation with all Red Sea region countries, but especially with Egypt, Ethiopia, and, more recently, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti.
China’s Trade and Arms Sales with Regional Countries
While freedom of navigation for purposes of global trade is China’s most important interest in the region, in 2020 the only regional countries that had significant trade with China were Saudi Arabia ($67 billion), Israel ($18 billion), and Egypt ($15 billion). China exported fifteen times more to Egypt and almost twice as much to Israel (China is its second largest trade partner) than it imported from them. Because of oil imports, Beijing has a significant trade deficit with Saudi Arabia. In 2020, export and import trade with Jordan, Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, and Ethiopia ranged between $2 billion and $4 billion; in each case China held a large trade surplus. Somalia and Eritrea had negligible trade with China. The overwhelming majority of China’s imports from the region are natural resources and exports are high value finished goods.
Thanks to Saudi Arabia, China relies heavily on the region for sourcing its oil. Saudi Arabia accounts for about 17% of China’s imported oil, its single most important supplier in the world. Prior to 2011, when South Sudan became independent and took with it three-quarters of Sudan’s oil fields, Sudan accounted for about 5% of China’s imported oil. Their combined exports have fallen significantly because of civil strife and production issues; Sudan and South Sudan now provide only about 1% of China’s imported oil.
An important but often exaggerated component of China’s exports to the region are weapons. At $24 billion during the period 2010-2020, the United States was by far the largest arms supplier to the region, especially to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Russia’s more than $5 billion of arms transfers, mostly to Egypt, during the same period made it the second largest supplier. By comparison, at $639 million, China was a modest arms supplier to countries in the Red Sea region. The primary recipients were Sudan ($254 million), Saudi Arabia ($205 million including armed drones used in Yemen), Egypt ($81 million), and Ethiopia ($57 million). China sold negligible quantities of arms to other countries in the Red Sea region. The UK, France, and Germany had sales four times or more than those of China.
Foreign Direct Investment, Infrastructure Financing and Construction
While China has become an increasingly important source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Red Sea region, in most countries it lags well behind more traditional investors. China’s FDI flows to Saudi Arabia added up to almost $2.2 billion from 2009 through 2019. This is, however, a small percentage of Saudi Arabia’s cumulative FDI stock of $236 billion as of 2019. China has become Ethiopia’s largest source of FDI flows, totaling $1.8 billion from 1997 through 2016. China is investing more in Egypt, but in 2018/2019 did not rank among the top six investing countries. As of 2018, China held less than 3% of Israel’s FDI stock, about the same as Canada, compared to more than 20% for the United States. Sudan is China’s second largest recipient of FDI in Africa after South Africa; Chinese companies invested at least $7.6 billion in the oil sector alone.
From the standpoint of China’s security interests and power projection along the MSR, almost all of China’s FDI in support of infrastructure projects has gone to port development and trade-related storage facilities. In 2021, China’s COSCO Shipping Ports Limited signed agreements with Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal for a 20% equity investment in the Jeddah Islamic Port. The following month, Hong Kong’s Hutchison Ports signed an investment and operational agreement for Jizan’s Red Sea container and general cargo terminals. China Merchant Port Holdings has a 23.5% stake in the port management company of Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal and won the concession to manage the port. During the 1990s, the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) completed one of its first African port projects in Port Sudan where it also obtained an equity investment.
Egypt represents a major concentration of Chinese port and storage financing, construction, and investment. COSCO has a 20% stake in the Suez Canal Container Company located on the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal. Hutchison Ports operates Egypt’s two main commercial ports at Alexandria and El-Dekheila. CHEC completed the $219 million quay at the northern end of the Suez Canal and $1 billion quay at the southern end followed by construction of a $416 million cargo terminal. Hutchison Ports is establishing a container terminal able to handle one million containers annually at Abu Qir near Alexandria. CHEC built a $520 million terminal basin in Sokhna Port south of the Suez Canal. China has become the biggest investor in the Suez Canal Area Development Project. China’s Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area Group established a joint Suez-Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone in the Ain Sokhna district. COSCO then agreed to build a bonded logistics park in the zone to serve the BRI as a major logistics service provider.
Israel sought financing to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean using a railway between Eilat, a port on the Gulf of qaba, and Ashdod on the Mediterranean. China saw this project as an alternative for securing its shipping access between the two bodies of water in the event of a Suez Canal closure and initially suggested it would provide financing. The project has not materialized because of its high cost and U.S. concerns it would result in too close a security connection between Tel Aviv and Beijing. However, Chinese companies recently obtained a 25-year management and upgrade contract for Haifa port and won 5G telecommunications infrastructure projects in Israel. These China-Israel ties have caused increasing tension with Washington.
China has earned much of its leverage in the region, especially on the African side of the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, by becoming the leading financier and builder of infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, railways, and IT networks, including the 7,500-mile-long undersea Peace cable from Pakistan to France that snakes the length of the Red Sea. Huawei is making the equipment and is a major shareholder in Hengton Optic-Electric Company, which is constructing the cable. But it has been the financing, building, equity investment, and management of ports in the region that give China a security advantage vis-à-vis other major powers. The focus on ports, especially equity investments, is not coincidental and goes beyond a profit motive for Chinese companies. It also has the goal of protecting Chinese shipping and the longer-term objective of opening the door to dual use possibilities for extending the reach of the PLAN.
More Exposure Results in More Risk
China’s increased physical presence, interests, and leverage in the region have resulted in new security challenges. The number of Chinese contractors, laborers, and entrepreneurs grew substantially in the past two decades, albeit with a coronavirus-induced reduction in 2020. The spike in security challenges and incidents grew apace. The most significant threat was the outbreak beginning in 2005 of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. Attacks on Chinese ships and crews became a serious problem, causing the PLAN to contribute beginning in 2008 two frigates and a supply ship to the international anti-piracy effort. This deployment continues to the present day, although the piracy threat largely ended several years ago. Nevertheless, Somali piracy provided the rationale for establishing what China calls a “naval support facility” at Djibouti.
In 2007, a rebel group seeking self-determination from Ethiopia attacked a heavily guarded Chinese gas/oil exploration base, killing in a shootout with Ethiopian troops nine Chinese employed by a subsidiary of Sinopec. The following year, a Darfur rebel organization overran in Sudan’s South Kordofan state a China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) operation, capturing nine Chinese employees, five of whom later died. CNPC reported 500 security emergencies in Sudan between 2007 and 2009.
Violent protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring caused the Chinese government to organize eight commercial charter flights to repatriate 1,848 Chinese nationals. In 2012, a Bedouin group in Egypt’s Sinai kidnapped and then quickly released twenty-five Chinese workers. In 2015, the security situation deteriorated in Yemen and the PLAN vessels assigned to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden evacuated 621 Chinese nationals from the ports of Aden and al-Hudaydah to Djibouti. In 2020, civil conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region forced the Chinese embassy in Addis Ababa to evacuate 589 of its nationals employed by two Chinese companies in two different locations.
These kinds of security issues in the Red Sea and beyond raised concerns in China about the government’s capacity to protect its nationals overseas and led to a reassessment of Beijing’s measures to respond. In 2017, the military base in Djibouti became a key part of China’s efforts to protect its interests and citizens. With an estimated one-to-two thousand personnel, the facility includes a pier that can accommodate China’s newest aircraft carrier, a large assault vessel, or four of its nuclear-powered attack submarines. A PLAN Marine Corps mechanized infantry company operates the base.
How Does China Deal with Security-Related Issues?
While China is taking steps to improve the protection of its interests and personnel in the region, it continues to eschew kinetic military activity unlike the occasional response of countries such as the United States, France, and Russia. It maintains an active program of high-level military-to-military visits and has stepped up its military training, mostly in China, of soldiers from the region and increased PLAN calls in Red Sea and Gulf of Aden ports. China makes liberal use of arms sales to African and Arab governments. It provides peacekeepers, including a combat battalion, to the UN operation in South Sudan and a helicopter unit to the hybrid African Union/UN mission in Darfur, which is shutting down. It has used its base in Djibouti for live fire exercises and the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Yemen, but it has not used forces for offensive military action and there is no indication that it intends to do so anytime soon.
China has also been reluctant to resolve disputes in the region, although prior to the Beijing Olympics it did pressure the government of Sudan to accept a peacekeeping mission in Darfur that included the United Nations. It took this action to tamp down Western charges that China was contributing to genocide in Darfur, which might lead to a boycott of the Olympics. China made a limited effort to mediate civil conflict in South Sudan, where it has extensive interests in the oil sector. The attempt failed when the rebels did not perceive Beijing as a legitimate peace broker. On two occasions, China offered to mediate regional disputes although nothing came of the offer. In 2017, China’s ambassador to the African Union said Beijing was ready, if requested, to mediate the Eritrea-Djibouti border dispute. In 2018, China said it would consider mediating the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
When it comes to sensitive security and political issues in the region, China’s default position is to encourage dialogue, refrain from taking sides, support national sovereignty, and suggest development is the best long-term solution. China has consistently argued for a political settlement of the Yemeni conflict, backed the UN peace process, and insisted force cannot solve the problem. China has cordial relations with Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia and has no interest in jeopardizing its interests in any of these countries by taking sides on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute on the Blue Nile. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently told Sudan’s foreign minister that “dialogue and consultation” are required and “China supports the three countries” in finding a mutually beneficial solution. Having had especially close relations with the previous Ethiopian government, China’s position on the current conflict in Tigray Region is more nuanced. It supports peace and stability for all Ethiopian people and pledged to provide emergency food aid to the beleaguered Tigrayans.
China emphasizes the economic cooperation and peaceful development aspects of the BRI and MSR. It seems to be up to others to highlight the security role of the initiative more broadly and in the Red Sea region. While it is important not to overstate the security implications or suggest that China is even close to replacing the military presence of the United States and other Western powers in the region, it is equally important to understand that the initiative, and, especially, that part of it that transits the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden intends over the long term to elevate China from a regional to a global power. The challenge for China will be implementation of this goal as it tries to avoid its aversion to kinetic military activity and interfering in the internal affairs of countries in the region.
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 Ibid., https://santandertrade.com/en/portal/establish-overseas/israel/foreign-investment#:~:text=FDI%20in%20Figures,-Israel%20has%20a&text=The%20FDI%20stock%20was%20about,United%20States%20and%20the%20Netherlands.
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