When Security Studies Group released its American Grand Strategy in July of 2018, the principals could not have known that two short years later, the entire global paradigm would be shaken to its core by the emergence of a novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19.
One of the most interesting developments is the degree to which the average person has become aware of how the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) has exploited global dependence on Chinese manufacturing and logistics prowess to pursue its hegemonic aims.
A domain where this is increasingly obvious is in China’s clandestine control of critical port infrastructure stretching from the Far East to Europe. Oft-referenced by international media as the “String of Pearls”, these ports are an indispensable component of the CCP’s long-term economic and military posture towards the greater Eurasian continent.
This is evident by the specific type of naval vessels and systems being most heavily funded by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Despite launching its first domestically built fixed wing aircraft carrier in December 2019, the Type 002 Shandong, the PLAN has poured much of its capital into “green water” naval assets that are an ideal fit for regional, short range, and littoral combat operations. Among these are guided missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, helicopter carriers, and large modern amphibious assault ships for landing PLAN marines and equipment.
Additionally, the PLAN has continued rapid development of its subsurface program, with new shipbuilding capacity allowing it to soon launch two attack boats (Shang-class SSN) and one ballistic missile submarine (Jin-class SSBN) per year. Perhaps most concerning of all is the PLAN’s deployment of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) such as the DF-26, which are designed for precision strikes on large surface vessels at sea – the most obvious targets being the U.S.’ aircraft carriers. The DF-26 represents an upgrade to its famous predecessor, the DF-21, boasting more than double the range and being dual-capable of carrying conventional or nuclear payloads. This standoff capability must be carefully considered by U.S. military strategists who are responsible for planning and launching operations against onshore Chinese domains.
All told, the PLAN now operates a rapidly modernizing fleet of more than 335 ships, or approximately 40 more vessels than the US Navy (USN). At the current shipbuilding pace, the PLAN will have more than 425 vessels in its fleet by 2030, compared to the USN’s planned force structure of 330 vessels. Such a massive force, especially one largely comprised of manned vessels with conventionally-powered engines that churn through many barrels of fuel, requires a robust network of ports, terminals, and supply chain operations. Concurrent with defense of maritime economic routes, this supply chain function is the primary planned role of the String of Pearls.
The Pearl of Aden
While each port stretching from China to Greece has an important function, perhaps no port is more indicative of the CCP’s plans than the PLAN naval base at Djibouti. Situated along the western shores of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait at the southern mouth of the Red Sea, the port of Djibouti has become an essential maritime logistics hub for the Horn of Africa and larger Middle Eastern theater. Its implicit and explicit importance is reflected by its hosting of the US military’s only permanent base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier. A sprawling, multi-role naval expeditionary base, the installation has been operated by the US Navy since 2001 and houses units from every branch of the U.S. armed forces.
In 2017, the PLAN opened its own facility on the northern coastline of Djibouti, adjacent to the critical Doraleh Multipurpose Port, the gateway of the region’s maritime commerce. Work is almost complete on the first phase of the maritime support infrastructure, including a new 330 meter-long deep water pier capable of docking any current or planned vessels in the PLAN fleet. These include both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft carriers, the largest Jin-class ballistic missile submarines, and any surface combat vessels. By the end of this year, it is expected that the PLAN will have a fully-functional combined arms combat support facility at perhaps the world’s most critical maritime chokepoint.
As indicated in this exceptional, thorough report from Dutton et al at the U.S. Naval War College, the CCP has made the PLAN base at Djibouti a linchpin of its combined economic and military interests in the larger African, European, and Middle Eastern theater. Promises from the CCP to make Djibouti the “Dubai of East Africa” have only further fueled the government of Djibouti’s interest in deeper ties to the CCP regime. Promises (and feasibility) aside, what is clear today is that the CCP has committed to a permanent, expansive presence in the region.
The CCP has poured more than $15 billion alone into the port, naval base, and logistics infrastructure of Djibouti. Best estimates are that Chinese investments in the Horn of Africa total more than $70 billion in foreign direct investment, with billions more awarded to Chinese state-owned enterprises and private commercial entities in other contracts. Besides the region’s geographic importance as a chokepoint for global trade, it is also home to a bounty of natural resources and low-cost labor. For China, it is an asset worth defending at all cost. For the United States, the Chinese presence is a potential threat to global commerce and stability that must not be ignored.
With two superpowers on a collision course for primacy of influence in the region, the PLAN base begs a simple question – what exactly can (or should) the United States do about it?
Importantly, we must acknowledge that the CCP’s approach of creating synergy between commercial, logistical, and military assets has tremendous merit. We are operating in an irreducibly-interdependent world. In such a paradigm, siloed strategies are tantamount to conceding defeat. Every asset should be able to be weaponized, every policy constructed with a dual-use mentality. Critically, it will be deep and mutually-beneficial alliances that offer the greatest return on investment.
A cursory view of the Gulf of Aden shows again the geostrategic importance of Djibouti and the surrounding nations. We must also concede that ousting the PLAN from its current foothold is unfeasible. This argues for exploring mitigation and containment options via neighboring countries in the region, which drives the requirement for developing policies in alignment with our “Freedom and Fair Trade” Grand Strategy.
The exciting realization is that there are indeed strong potential allies in pivotal locations. The nations of Eritrea, Somaliland, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia are uniquely positioned to derive extraordinary benefits from multilateral cooperation between and amongst themselves, vouchsafed by the economic and commercial support of the United States. This will further lead to broader regional opportunities for peace and prosperity for outer-ring nations such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Egypt. Importantly as well, authoritarian regional hegemons such as Qatar, Turkey, and Iran will find their ability to operate with impunity further degraded.
The articles that follow from this introduction will explore in detail the opportunities and benefits to each of the four nations named above, as well as their essential role in disrupting China’s String of Pearls foothold in Djibouti. As always, it is the goal of Security Studies Group to build bottom-up solutions that allow individuals and communities to thrive according to their own rich traditions and values, promote economic stability and peace, and advance the interests of the United States at minimal cost in American blood and treasure.
Critically, it must not be the goal of the United States to eliminate China as a hegemonic entity, only to then substitute ourselves. The goal must be to encourage and nurture each nation to stand on its own economically, while driving positive participation in their own safety and success. This means that the United States does not merely act as a guarantor of defensive security, but throws open the gates of our marketplace and shares innovations broadly with cooperating nations.
China has a three-decade head start in their “total war” against the United States, but with the explosion of COVID-19, the announcement of the Blue Dot Network, and America’s newfound progress in the trade war, the time is now to press our emergent opportunity.
Most importantly, the United States can achieve this end in such a way that our friends and allies derive the greatest benefits of all – peace, prosperity, and resilience to the great power conflicts of the coming generations.