Eric Michiels, Defence Attaché of the Kingdom of Belgium, UAE

Second lecture;

ROLES and IGSDA online seminar, Friday, 22-01-2021. ‘New Great Game for the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa: RCAST Security Webinar Series #1’

University of Tokyo

Scope, what international actors have to be considered

A kind of Definition

The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea is a region where a multitude of actors are present. However, it is necessary to be able to define the main actors according to certain criteria.

First of all, the actor must be able to present one or the other of the “power factors”, be it military, economic, diplomatic (political) and cultural. We will also add the field of information in the broadest sense, which allows the 21st century to exert influence.

Being a powerful state according to power factors is not enough, one must also have interests in the region and/or the will to exert influence.

The powers at stake

  • United States of America

The United States is perhaps the international power for which we ask ourselves the least questions. Its presence in the region is clearly visible and its power factors are indisputable in all areas.

  • China

China has become one of the world’s major powers in a short period of time. It is clear that on the economic level, it challenges the United States. On the military level, even if its presence outside its borders is extremely limited, the size of its army is considerable. It has its own defense industry and is in the process of building a large-scale Navy (own-built aircraft carriers).

Nevertheless, on the diplomatic/political level, despite charming offensives linked to its economic power, China is struggling to convince and make reliable allies.

  • Russia

The Russia of the 21st century is far from the greatness of the USSR. Nevertheless, this country has a military capacity, with its own defense industry, to play in the Champion’s league. Economically, Russia is lagging behind. But in the field of influence, it has managed to keep its Cold War gains.

  • Europe ?

Could we consider Europe as a major player? Economically, it is undeniable that Europe carries a certain “weight”.

However, it lacks unity and therefore finds it difficult to exert a decisive influence far from its borders. It often moves forward in a scattered order and it is often the particular interests of its members that prevail in international matters. Nevertheless, Europe remains a normative power and is attractive and influential in terms of culture and values.

I will not take up Europe as such, but rather only two of the most influencal countries, France and the United Kingdom. I do not consider these two countries as Major Global powers, but when looking to that particular region and because their colonial history, they are good points of comparison to measure the relative power each country can exert. These both countries are permanent member at the security council of the United Nations and are Nuclear powers, two common characteristics with the three Global powers

  • And the others

On certain points, India could be considered as a major power, at least in the same way as the European countries previously mentioned. But this country still has many “gaps” in terms of power and it cannot be as influential as the other powers. However, this could change in the future.

Note that India is trying to counter China by all means and that India has an agreement with Japan to use the port in Djibouti.

  • What makes the HoA and the Red Sea so important for these acteurs?

It’all about geography!

To make a long story short, there is no interest in the population or in the countries of the Horn of Africa.

Most actors are sharing a common interest in securing the Sea Lines of communications, the waterways.

About 10% of the world’s freight transits between the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab El Mandeb.

The region is therefore of strategic importance not only economically but also in terms of security.

The fears of the major powers would be to have a blockade of the various crossing points that are the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-El-Mandeb. It should be remembered that the Suez Canal was closed twice: for six months in 1956 and between 1967 and 1975.

At the present time, the following events are of concern:

  1. The permanent presence of an Iranian Naval Task Force (Task Force 71 has just relieved Task Force 70 at the beginning of the year).
  2. The presence of submarine mines, attributed to the Houthis.
  3. The repeated use of WBIED (Water borne Improvised Explosive Device), a kind of marine drone with an explosive charge.
  4. Incidents with the use of missiles to commercial vessels off the coast of Yemen.

Underwater, there is also the major part of the communication cables linking Europe to Asia. These cables are of major importance not only for the economy but also for finance (communications between the different stock exchanges) and are the stake of espionage as evidenced by the presence of several NSA stations along the coast.

Defending economic interests implies a willingness to ensure stability and security in the region. This is why the problems of terrorism are taken to heart by the various powers. Really? Yes and no.

It is clear that the players are more concerned about possible acts of piracy than about the real terrorism that ravages countries like Somalia. In comparison, we see less international intervention in the Horn of Africa than in the Sahel to fight terrorism because that local terrorism is not directly exported to the US, China, Russia or to Europe, and does not directly affect migration flows to these powers.

Many countries are interested in the evolution of the war in Yemen because it can directly influence security in the Red Sea and the Strait.

The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region is a key component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is also part of the “Africa-Asia Growth Corridor” project to be launched by Japan and its partners.

It should also be noted that security problems in the region will affect commodities and oil prices.

The Red Sea is also the crossing point to France’s overseas territories (Mayotte, Reunion).

Finally, the presence in the region of certain actors is also linked to the desire to exert their influence on their regional partners, to ensure their support. For other countries such as Russia, to exert a counter-influence and form alliances to the detriment of the United States.

Due to its geographical position, Russia is more interested in the Eastern Mediterranean zone, hence its very marked efforts in this region. Interest in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa is much less marked, its supply is less dependent on this route. However, given the strategic interest of this area for its competitors, it must assert a presence and try to exert influence. Its relations with Iran (present in the Red Sea, Yemen, Syria and holding the key to the Strait of Hormuz), also make it a key player for regional powers.

  • How do exerce their influence
  • On the Military Security field

We have various international operations in the region to ensure the security of the waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden :

– CTF-151, under US lead, based in Bahrain

– The European Union’s ATALANTA operation

NATO ceased Operation OCEAN SHIELD in 2016.CJTF-Horn of Africa, US lead.

Of course, whan looking for securing the waterways, you should have an idea about the ports present on the shores. There are nearly 20 operational ports in Egypt, 8 of which have commercial capacity.

Saudi Arabia has 6 ports on the Red Sea, half of which are operated by DB World (UAE).

Sudan has three ports, but it is Port Sudan that is worthy of interest.

In Eritrea, we find the port of Massawa.

The port of Djibouti is certainly one of the best known.

Finally, we have Berbera in Somaliland and Bosaso in Puntland.

Let us also add Yemen which has 7 ports but whose operationality is no longer guaranteed since the war.

So, a lot of port facilities available, but the naval military presence is concentrated mainly on two spots:

  • Port Sudan’s naval base hosts Russian warships as part of a cooperation agreement signed in 2017. An agreement is underway to establish a Russian naval logistics base in Sudan.
  • Djibouti hosts military bases from United States (the US Lemonnier base is also home to the UK contingent), China, France (including German and Spanish contingents), Japan and Italy. Despite the general harmony within the country, Djibouti’s coast is getting crowded and tensions playing out beyond the sea. 

From a military point of view, we find in the foreground the United States, which with the presence of the fleet based in Bahrain and the various bases in the region is capable of ensuring a dissuasive military presence. It should be noted that the Red Sea is the boundary between two major US commands. CENTCOM and AFRICOM.

Russia has just finalized military cooperation agreements with 21 African countries, 6 countries have given their agreement for the construction of military bases (or at least a shared use of the existing facilities), including 3 in the Horn of Africa/Red Sea region: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea. However, Russia is mainly focused on the Mediterranean with a major concern for the exit from the Black Sea.

The Red Sea represents a way out in case of a problem in the Mediterranean. The agreement with Egypt, and thus a certain assurance of free passage through the Suez Canal is therefore essential.

With three “bases” in the region, Russia would become one of the most important presences.

China’s military base in Djibouti is Xi Jinping’s more assertive foreign policy. In 2018, the US accused Chinese nationals of pointing lasers at US military aircraft near Djibouti

  • On the economic field

If we compare the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom from the point of view of economic investments, we can see that Russia is really insignificant.

China seems to be the country that makes the strongest offensive. However, when we analyze the figures, China does not invest massively in Africa, it finances and holds debt.

In terms of trade partnership, China is the biggest exporter to Africa but imports nothing compared to Europe which is the main outlet for African production. In this game, Europe, France and the United Kingdom in particular, is proving to be more interesting partner for African countries. The commercial balance being finally more positive.

However, the easy loans granted by China continue to seduce the countries, certainly that they do not come with conditions of good governance.

Thanks to this policy, China has been able to create an image among the population as a reliable partner, the completion of the railway between Djibouti and Adis Adeba is certainly a landmark.

The United States was the largest investor in Africa but since the arrival of Trump this has decreased.

Because of its grip on the world economy, the United States is able to impose sanctions on states or individuals who enjoy de facto extraterritoriality and these sanctions can therefore have an effect comparable to those promulgated by the United Nations. Sanctions against Sudan have been revoked in 2017. For the moment, US is threatening Ethiopia of economic sanctions due to the domestic problem with Tigrey.

The US technological dominance has certainly been an asset for many years. However, China has managed to become competitive in the field of telecommunications. With Huawei, China intends to become a major player in the development of 5G mobile communications. The US is trying to counter China on that field but Huawei has managed to seduce Saudi Arabia. Telecommunications infrastructures are of vital strategic importance and directly affect a country’s security. Huawei offers the advantage of being less expensive and having a shorter deployment time compared to Western competitors.

  • On the diplomatic/politic field

Economic sanctions are part of the means of diplomatic pressure.

The United States has particularly used sanctions against Iran, a regional actor that can influence stability and security in the region. But US sanctioned in the past Sudan and is still using this “weapon” to influence countries.

Recently, the United States has been able to put enough pressure on Sudan to sign the Abraham agreements with Israel, promising to remove them from the list of countries supporting terrorism.

The 3 “major players” all have a right of veto at the Security Council of the United Nations. Over the past 15 years, 30 cases have been vetoed in the Security Council, including 22 concerning the Middle East. Out of these 30 cases, Russia has expressed its opposition 24 times, the United States 6 times! China has vetoed 13 times, always in support of Russia, never alone. It is clear that Russia manipulates the veto as a tool of diplomacy and politics to thwart its American enemy but also to monetize its influence with potential allies.

Military cooperation agreements are one of the means to forge long-term strategic alliances.

In this game, we see that the US and Russia are better players than China, which is struggling to convince.

Russia, by signing 21 cooperation agreements in Africa, including 3 in the region in question (Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea), has scored a major coup. The agreement with Egypt is certainly “a stone in the US shoe”.

The arms sales are above all a political tool and Russia and China are certainly less reluctant to sell arms to countries considered less stable, not bothered by the considerations formulated by NGOs.

If one refers to all the contracts that have been potentially signed by Russia with African governments, the Russians would have become Africa’s first arms supplier!

Russia negotiated the sale of SU-35 to Egypt, provoking the anger of the US. According to SPIRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), 49% of the foreign arms supplied to Africa would come from Russia!

West of the Red Sea, the champion in every category is certainly Russia. US dominance is overwhelming east of the Red Sea. China is very modest and France is well established everywhere, while Great Britain only stands out in Saudi Arabia.

China has turned the Coronavirus crisis into a kind of victory over the disease. China boasts of having managed to stop the pandemic while the great Western democracies are in chaos, reaching new heights in terms of contaminations. Even if the latest figures are beginning to show that the epidemic is about to resume in China.

Its Sinopharm vaccine offering is beginning to conquer different countries. Egypt approved it on January 4. If it is not the vaccine itself, it is logistical support in air transport that China is offering, as it is for Ethiopia……Western countries are certainly lagging behind in this area.

  • On the cultural and informational field

If we refer to the colonial past, it is mainly the British Empire and the Italians who have influenced the region, France had only a presence in Djibouti, but it has benefited from its influence through other African colonies.

The British colonial past certainly brings advantages given the anchoring but also its share of reluctance. If the evolution in the Arabian Peninsula went smoothly, with the conservation of the English influence, the perception in Egypt is a little more mitigated (Suez crisis).

The three world powers are therefore particularly absent from the history of the countries bordering the Red Sea.

It is clear that the English language is largely dominant over Russian, Chinese even over French.

On the cultural field, we have to consider education. This can be analyzed from two different angles: the presence of institutions from the different Major powers in the countries, and the students coming from the region and studying abroad, in the US, Russia or China (plus Frace and UK).

It is noticeable that the 5 countries have a strong attraction to foreign students. The world ranking is as such: USA (1), UK (2), China (3), France (6) and Russia (7).

If we look more closely to the students coming from the shores of the Red Sea, Saudi students mainly go to the USA, UK and France. If we look at the African side, France and China are equal, followed by the Anglo-Saxons. Russia stays far behind.

In terms of cultural institutions established in the different countries, France is the champion, even in English-speaking Africa. Its AEFE (Association of French Schools Abroad) and “Alliance Française” networks are present in almost every country.  The United States is also very present. China ranks third, and it is remarkable because it was non-existent not long ago. The number of Confucius institutes that open per year is impressive. In the last two years, it is West Africa that has received all the attention.

In the field of media, we can perceive the United States as world champion thanks to the Movies industry (Hollywood).

But Russia has developed a network of influence through the network of news channels “Russia Today” which exist in different languages including Arabic, like the BBC channel.

China is also present in Africa with no less than four channels broadcasted by satellite in Africa. More important, China also has a local anchorage with the CGTN channel whose headquarter is based in Kenya, and entirely controlled by Beijing. China trains nearly 1000 African journalists in China every year.

China and Russia therefore have a policy that can be described as assertive when it comes to disseminating information with the aim of being able to control their image abroad.

  • Conclusions

The Red Sea is of vital importance to the global economy and its security will remain a major concern for many countries, particularly the United States and China.

In terms of a strategy of confrontation between the 3 major powers, the countries of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea will not be the first priority as such. However, the region remains a key element for these three powers to achieve their primary objectives.

The zone will be unavoidable for the United States in order to be able to counter China.

China sees the region as an important link in the new Silk Road. Its interest has been marked in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea since the initiation of this project.

Russia’s interest in the region is relatively recent. It is not so much for the economic interest. The area is contiguous to the region that is the first priority: the Eastern Mediterranean. The Red Sea region is becoming de facto the logical extension of that zone, a secondary exit route.  Russia also seizes every opportunity to counter US influence at low cost and exploits all the mistakes or weaknesses of its great rival.