The top US general for Africa told lawmakers the American military could face “significant” consequences should China take a key port in Djibouti, as Beijing becomes increasingly muscular in Africa in an effort to expand its influence.
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.
During a congressional hearing on Tuesday, 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. China has already built a military base in Djibouti, just miles from a critical US military base.
“If this was an illegal seizure of that port, what is to say government wouldn’t illegally terminate our lease before its term is up,” said Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican.
In a letter to US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Byrne said he was concerned about China’s influence in Djibouti and the impact it would have on US military and intelligence assets.
Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said if China placed restrictions on the port’s use, it could affect resupplying the US base in Djibouti and the ability of Navy ships to refuel there.
“If the Chinese took over that port, the consequences could be significant,” Waldhauser said during the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing.
Djibouti hosts a vital US military base home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launchpad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.
“There are indications of China looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast. … So Djibouti happens to be the first, there will be more,” Waldhauser said.
China has sought to be visible in Africa, including through high-profile investment in public infrastructure projects, as it deepens trade ties.
Waldhauser said the United States would be unable to match the scale of investment throughout the continent, noting Beijing’s construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even soccer stadiums.
“We’ll never outspend the Chinese in Africa,” Waldhauser said, noting some Chinese investments in Djibouti.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States will give more than $533 million in humanitarian aid for victims of conflicts and drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the West and Central African countries bordering Lake Chad.
Tillerson contrasted the United States’ work on the African continent, which he said promoted “sustainable growth,” with that of China, which recently pledged $124 billion for its Silk Road plan to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and other places.
Tillerson said China’s investment in Africa “encouraged dependency.”
Earlier this year, the US military put countering China, along with Russia, at the centre of a new national defence strategy.
The Pentagon said China was a part of “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with authoritarian models.”
Waldhauser was in the process of rewriting US military strategy in the region with China in mind.
“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,” Waldhauser said.
“We are taking baby steps in that regard,” he added.