The renewed focus on great power competition is causing seismic shifts in large parts of the national security community, with the potential to reshape our understanding of strategic priorities and geopolitical relationships in regions of long-standing strategic importance. The Red Sea offers an informative case in point. The region serves as both a confirmation of the need for a comprehensive approach to great power competition and as a warning that the shift in U.S. strategic focus to Russia and China should not blind the national security community to the significance of other, major regional actors.
The Red Sea links the Suez Canal to the Gulf of Aden, making it one of the world’s busiest waterways. It also touches on both recent and ongoing conflicts that have captured the world’s attention, from the war in Yemen to the recent protests that overthrew the 30-year rule of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. The sea’s importance is heightened by the presence of external actors with diverse priorities, of economic choke points and military seams. The Red Sea is geographically important to the United States because of what it connects: continents, economic routes, and U.S. military combatant commands.
The shift to great power competition raises significant questions about how these dynamics will evolve over time and what they will mean for U.S. interests, particularly in the cases of China and Russia. While U.S. freedom of maneuver and access in the Red Sea does not appear to be under any imminent threat, the strategic environment in and around the Red Sea has shifted, and great power competition has forced the U.S. to consider its actions in the region, and the actions of others, through a different lens.
China’s activities in and around the Red Sea are coming under increased scrutiny. Clear signs of China increasing its presence in the region are seen in its counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, military exercises with partners in the region and, most significantly, the construction of its first overseas military support facility in Djibouti in 2015. The Red Sea is important to China economically, as the ambitious Maritime Silk Road project — or Belt and Road Initiative — passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait that connects the sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Consequently, Chinese investment around the Red Sea is likely to increase over time.
With large-scale Chinese economic investment in the region, many assume that a more robust military presence will follow. Unlike the U.S., China is positioned to capitalize on the increase in Red Sea port infrastructure required to meet the region’s economic demands in the coming years. Chinese state-owned firms already have concessions to develop and operate terminals and other facilities at commercial ports in Egypt and Djibouti.
Investment in areas like the Red Sea suggests that China’s has a comprehensive, integrated national strategy for its global rise, whereas the U.S. response is military- and diplomacy-focused, and lacks a clear vision of how to incorporate the informational and economic levers of power. In short, the U.S. has lost the ability to wrap economics into its strategic policy in this region, putting the U.S. at a disadvantage.
Russia plays a smaller, but nonetheless significant, role in the Red Sea. While arms sales constitute the bulk of its relationships with countries in the region, including defense deals with Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Russia’s primary security interest is in guaranteed access to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and, perhaps, eventual basing in these areas.
Turkey, the Gulf states, and Egypt are also significant, possibly destabilizing forces in the region that are at risk of being overlooked by the U.S., given the strategic single-mindedness on competition with China and Russia. Rising tensions among Gulf States due to alleged Iranian influence and the conflict in Yemen serve as a reminder that the U.S. should not overlook the significance of major regional actors, even in an era of great power competition.
The consequences of great power competition in regions of long-standing strategic importance such as the Red Sea are still coming into focus for the national security community. In order to move forward, U.S. leadership will need to consider some important questions: What does successful competition in the Red Sea look like? How would the U.S. define success there? And finally, is competition in the Red Sea truly a zero-sum game in the paradigm of great power competition? At this inflection point, U.S. national security leaders would do well to look ahead and consider the potential costs of missed opportunities for engagement that await on the shores of the Red Sea.