By: James A. Fargher
A slow-motion struggle for control over the waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is quietly being waged in the Horn of Africa. Global and regional powers alike are jostling for position along one of the world’s most important trade routes. The retreat of Great Britain and France, the traditional European maritime powers, from the area and the determination of Iran and China to increase their influence in the region has turned the Horn into one of the latest theatres for naval competition. Much like their 19th-century colonial forebears, these new maritime powers have helped to spark something of a scramble for African ports.
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have been used as a trade route between East and West since ancient times, although until the modern era it was impossible to complete the journey uninterrupted. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, however, revolutionised the pattern of world trade by permitting ships to transit directly between the two seas.
Almost as soon as the canal opened, the world’s maritime powers sought to dominate this new oceanic highway. Egypt, followed shortly afterwards by Britain, France, and Italy rushed to lay claim to the handful of deep-water ports in the region.  The acquisition of a harbour by one power had to be matched by the others, lest they fall behind in the race for strategic positions. Each power would then follow this up by laying claims over surrounding countryside to create buffer zones aimed at keeping rival naval bases at arm’s length. 
The cycle of territorial expansion was fuelled by mutual suspicion and jealousy and only ended in the late 1880s after the collapse of Egypt’s abortive colonial empire in Africa. The remaining three European powers agreed to establish a status quo by signing demarcation treaties delineating the borders between their possessions. These borders have remained in effect, forming the modern boundaries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and its unrecognised breakaway province Somaliland.
After the Second World War, the Europeans began withdrawing their naval forces from the area and relinquishing their colonial possessions. Today, only France has maintained a presence in the region. Even after the colony of Djibouti achieved independence in 1977, the French kept a military garrison outside the capital – the last European outpost in north-eastern Africa.
During the Cold War, the new world powers attempted to fill the vacuum left behind by the Europeans. The Americans maintained a small communications facility in Asmara, then an Ethiopian port, until the pro-Western monarchy was overthrown in 1974 by the Soviet-backed Derg coup. The USSR subsequently established a small base near the Ethiopian coast, consisting of three docks and a storage facility. The base was abandoned following the dissolution of the USSR.
Following the 11 September attacks, the US returned to the region and built a Naval Expeditionary Base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti in 2003. The camp was intended to act as the local headquarters for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and Yemen as part of Washington’s War on Terror. Indeed, Camp Lemonnier continues to be used primarily to conduct anti-terrorist airstrikes with its squadrons of UAVs and F-15 fighters. Nevertheless, the base has also become a key position for projecting US power along the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Other maritime powers have followed suit. In 2011, the Japanese Ministry of Defence confirmed that it was establishing a base for Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces (JMSDF) in Djibouti. Ostensibly, the base was built to allow JMSDF units to provide assistance to Japanese nationals in Africa during emergencies, such as evacuating citizens trapped in South Sudan in 2016. However, Japan has also deployed Kawasaki P-1 patrol aircraft to the base – aircraft which are designed for intelligence-gathering and conducting anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
China too, as part of its strategic expansion, began constructing a naval base in Djibouti in 2016. The so-called ‘logistics support base’ is part of China’s ‘String of Pearls’ initiative, which aims to secure ports in the Middle East and Africa which will guarantee Chinese access to raw materials. This Chinese naval base is also undoubtedly part of a wider Chinese strategy to expand its power-projection capability and influence in key areas. In response to the Chinese, Japan announced in 2016 that it would be expanding its own base to accommodate C-130 transport aircraft and armoured vehicles.
Moreover, Iran has attempted to establish a permanent naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to increase its own regional influence. For the first time in its history, the Islamic Republic deployed a small flotilla of surface ships to the Red Sea in 2011. Iranian submarines have since been sent on patrols through the sea, and Iran even formed a Gulf of Aden anti-piracy task force in 2014.
Iran is also suspected of using Red Sea ports to smuggle weapons to Hamas in Gaza via Africa. These rumours, along with overt Iranian attempts to support the Houthi insurgency in the ongoing Yemeni civil war, have caused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to look for bases in the region to counteract Iran’s growing influence. As of January 2017, Saudi Arabia has finalised an agreement to construct a military base in Djibouti. Satellite imagery acquired by defence analysis firm IHS Jane’s indicates that the UAE, on its part, is constructing a large naval base in Assab, one of Eritrea’s main seaports, complete with a combat air wing. In February 2017, the UAE also secured a lease agreement with Somaliland to construct a military base in the port city of Berbera, once the protectorate capital of British Somaliland.
The geography of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region means that it will remain a strategic chokepoint as long as trade continues to flow between Europe and Asia. As rising global and regional powers expand their blue-water capabilities, they have triggered a race for naval bases in the Red Sea region. In this way, the modern struggle for ports mimics the scramble for African territory held amongst the European powers in the late 19th century.
James A. Fargher is a doctoral candidate in the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, specialising in British naval and Imperial history.
 Richard Hill, Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881 (Oxford University Press, 1959), 141.
 Diary Entry, 20 January 1885, The Gladstone Diaries, 275.
 ‘Agreement between the British and French Governments with regard to the Gulf of Tajourra and the Somali Coast,’ in Ian Brownlie and Ian Burns, African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1979), 768.
 Shashank Bengali, ‘US military investing heavily in Africa,’ Los Angeles Times, 20 October 2013.
 ‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.
 ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.
 Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.
Feature image credit: http://www.africom.mil/media-room/article/25177/cutlass-express-15-us-djibouti-building-partnerships
James A. Fargher
James is a second-year doctoral candidate in the Laughton Naval Unit specialising in British imperial and naval history.