Cold War 2.0: The Red Sea – Aman Obsiye


By Aman Obsiye

During the 1970s, United States Government (USG) foreign policy professionals feared that the Red Sea would become the Red Sea due to communist regimes controlling Somalia, Ethiopia, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Aden).  Currently, Ethiopia and Djibouti have firmly aligned themselves with the People’s Republic of China (Beijing), enhancing the possibilities, again, that the Red Sea may become the Red Sea. Additionally, the Iranian-backed Houthirebels in Yemen pose a great danger for American geopolitical interests in the Red Sea.


In 1967, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (southern Yemen) was introduced to the community of nations as a Marxist state. In 1969, Siad Bare executed a coup in Somalia and proclaimed its ideology to be Scientific Socialism. In 1974, Haile Mariam Mengistu executed a coup in Ethiopia and proclaimed it to be a communist state. In 1977, on the bequest of the USSR, Fidel Castro proposed to Bare and Mengistu that Somalia, Ethiopia, and southern Yemen (Aden) unite to create an amalgamated federated-state. If this plan would have succeeded, the shipping lanes of the Red Sea would have been under total communist control.

Currently, China is devising a grand geopolitical strategy called One Belt One Road, in which it seeks to alter the current economic global order to the detriment of the United States.  The Red Sea and the western sphere of the Indian Ocean are vital to its Maritime Silk Road initiative. China has been strategically gobbling up ports to facilitate this initiative, what is known as the String of Pearls. China currently manages the Red Sea/Western Indian Ocean ports of Djibouti (Djibouti), Lamu (Kenya), and Bagamoyo-Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

Also, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen present a possible opening for China in the Red Sea. Iran and China are both revisionist allied powers who seek to undermine American geopolitical interests, and it is foreseeable that a Houthi victory will open Yemen’s ports to China’s String of Pearls.

It should be presumed that ports within China’s String of Pearls will also have a military angle. It would be naive to think that China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative will not also enhance its naval presence globally.


The latest and one of the most strategic additions to China’s String of Pearls is the port city of Djibouti; China currently manages the port. Additionally, Djibouti has become host to China’s only foreign military base, with an estimated 10,000 military personnel to be stationed. It should be noted that Djibouti also hostCamp Lemonnier, the USG’s only permanent military base in Africa.  Djibouti is currently building strategic ties with China at the bequest of its dominant neighbor Ethiopia.  Ethiopia and China are strategic allies; I would argue that Ethiopia values its relationship with China more so than any other nation, including the United States.

Foreign Affairs has stated that: “There is no state in Africa where talk of a ‘China Model’ sounds more substantive than in Ethiopia under EPRDF rule.” (Africa’s Next Hegemon, April 2015).  Not only are the states of China and Ethiopia aligned, so are their one-party apparatuses.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to advise and assist the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Most notably, from 2005-2010 the CCP helped the EPRDF recruit five million new members.

The EPRDF is the umbrella organizational brainchild of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It was the TPLF who ousted Haile Mariam Mengistu from power and have ruled over Ethiopia since 1991.  The TPLF’s predecessor organization was called the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray.  The TPLF, and its umbrella organization, EPRDF, are ideologically Leninist parties, all but in name.  The CCP is deepening its party-to-party ties with EPRDF to assist in its ideological foundations. As Chairman Mao famously said: “Without a revolutionary party, without a party built on the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and in the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary style, it is impossible to lead the working class and the broad masses of the people . . ..” The CCP is helping the EPRDF in the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary style of political party development.

Since tiny Djibouti is at the mercy of its hegemonic neighbor, Ethiopia, it has aligned its foreign policy with that of the EPRDF. Since losing its Rea Sea coastline to Eritrean independence (de jure: 1993; de facto: 1991), Ethiopia has developed intimate ties with littoral Djibouti. Djibouti is strategically positioned at the Red Sea, literally at the gates of Bab al-Mandab.  Djibouti accounts for 70% of Ethiopia’s imports and exports.  Djiboutian President Guelleh has publicly stated that Ethiopia and Djibouti are one country with two presidents.  This explains why President Guelleh has ignored the pleas from the USG against allowing China to build a naval base in his nation. Ethiopia wants its big brother, China, close by its side.  To further cement the China-Ethiopia-Djibouti axis, China has built the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway.  The 466-mile-long electric rail between the two capitals was financed by China at $4 billion USD.  Additionally, China has financed the $590 million Doraleh Multipurpose Port (Doraleh is a coastal town in Djibouti).  At this pace, the Red Sea will eventually become the RedSea.

The United States is currently losing the Cold War 2.0.  It seems that the USG has not devised a strategy to counter China’s initiatives in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean.  I ask, what is more valuable than pearls? Diamonds.  The USG needs to formulate a strategy in the Red Sea/Western Indian Ocean, what I call the String of Diamonds. Somalia, with mainland Africa’s longest coast line, strategically situated at the nexus of the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean, will be vital to the USG’s String of Diamonds. By contrast, Somalia is also vital to China’s String of Pearls.

China knowns how valuable Somalia’s coast will be to its String of Pearls; ironically, pre-civil war Mogadishu was known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.   China has begun courting the recovering fragile nation and it reopened its embassy in Mogadishu in October 2014.  Additionally, a Chinese state-owned enterprise recently constructed Somalia’s newest airport,Bosaso International Airport, which opened in January 2016.  China is seeking to absorb Somalia’s coastline into its String of Pearls to establish its maritime hegemony in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean.  China’s String of Pearls in the Eastern Indian Ocean encompasses ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sir Lanka. China is now eying the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean.  China manages the ports of Djibouti (Djibouti), Lamu (Kenya), and Bagamoyo-Dar es Salam (Tanzania).  Somalia’s coast seems to be China’s next play.

If Somalia’s coast ends up in Chinese control, it would be a monumental blow to USG geopolitical interests.  Before the civil war, the United States had naval posts in Somalia’s coastal cities of Berbera, Kismayo, and Mogadishu.  Additionally, Somalia is reemerging as a democratic nation.  Somalis are historically known as Africa’s First Democrats, thus making this strategically positioned nation, not only a potential geopolitical ally, but also an ideological ally. The USG needs to implement the String of Diamondsstrategy to balance China’s String of Pearls.  Somalia’s long coastline would be an ideal starting point for this initiative.

Conclusory note: The United States Mission to Somalia functions out of our embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. We have yet to reopen our embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Aman Obsiye has a Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Policy from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of the academic research paperRethinking the Somali State. He tweets@amanobsiye