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China, Russia challenge the ‘Navy Second to None’

OWON: China and Russia have focused time and money on playing catch up and getting ahead. Game changers. Power is passing, and the Old Guard don't know it's over.

China, Russia challenge the ‘Navy Second to None’

New Eastern Outlook
By F. William Engdahl
21 January 2016

The United States’ leading military planners following the Spanish-American War of 1898 studied carefully the imperial model of their English-speaking cousins in Britain. After 1873 as the British economy sank deeper into what they called The Great Depression, men like Junius Pierpont Morgan, the most powerful banker in America, Andrew Carnegie, her largest steelmaker, John D. Rockefeller, her oil monopolist—America’s first oligarchs—realized that for the United States to rival Britain as the world power numero uno, she would have to have a “navy second to none.” That US naval dominance may soon fade into the pages of past history. Look closely at what China and Russia are doing on the strategic seas.

In August 2015, an event occurred whose longer-term strategic significance is beginning to cause consternation in Washington and NATO headquarters. Russia and China, the two great Eurasian nations, engaged in joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan off coast from Russia’s far-east port city, Vladivostock. Commenting on its significance, Vice Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov, Deputy Commander of the Russian Navy, said at the time that the “scope of the exercise is unprecedented,” with 22 Russian and Chinese combat ships, 20 aircraft, 40 armored vehicles and 500 troops taking part. The exercises simulated anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare. It was phase two of joint Sino-Russian naval exercises, Joint Sea 2015, which began in May when 10 Russian and Chinese ships conducted their first combined drills in the Mediterranean Sea.

The strategic significance of joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in both the Mediterranean and in the waters off China’s and Russia’s far east shores is but the tip of what is clearly a far larger joint military strategy that potentially challenges US control of the seas.

Naval supremacy has been the vital prop of American power projection. In the Mediterranean, Russia has a naval base in Syria’s Tarsus, known technically as a “Material-Technical Support Point.” For Russia, the Syrian base is strategic, its only base in the Mediterranean. If Russia’s Black Sea fleet based in Crimea is required for support operations such as the present military intervention in Syria, Tarsus is invaluable, as well, for operations other far from Russian shores.

China’s first foreign navy base

Another seemingly minor event took place near the end of 2015 that caused little comment in the mainstream media. China announced that it was in negotiations with the government of one of the world’s most strategically placed and smallest nations, the Republic of Djibouti, for a Chinese naval base there. Djibouti has the geographical fortune, or misfortune, of being located in the Horn of Africa, directly across the narrowest waterway from Yemen where a bitter war is ongoing between a coalition led by Wahhabite Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Houthi, at the strategic chokepoint where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia in the west and south, and Somalia in the southeast.

China’s first-ever foreign naval base is being negotiated in Djibouti, one of the most important water routes for world oil and trade flows to China.

Technically, the Chinese base would be a modest naval logistics center for Chinese patrol boats engaged in UN operations to control Somali pirates. The Beijing Foreign Ministry stated that the new base was merely a maritime military infrastructure in Africa to assist the Chinese Navy in fulfilling its international peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the UN.

Significantly, the Chinese have chosen the desolate, tiny country of Djibouti, home to a mere 850,000 population, where the United States Navy also happens to have its only base in all Africa, Camp Lemonnier. Camp Lemonnier is a United States Naval Expeditionary Base, the only permanent base of US AFRICOM, and the center of a network of six US drone and surveillance bases across Africa. Djibouti port is also home to Italian, French, Japanese and Pakistani military facilities. Nice neighbors.

Despite the fact that it is only a modest, tiny facility compared to Camp Lemonnier, its geopolitical significance for China and for future US naval hegemony is far larger. Vasili Kashin, a Chinese military expert with the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies & Technologies, told a Russian newspaper, “the political significance of the event trumps its military importance. After all, this will be the first real Chinese military base abroad, even if it is truncated in form.” Kashin further stressed that the plans for the Djibouti base are, “a strong indication that China is becoming a full-fledged naval great power, on par with France and Britain, if not to speak of Russia or the United States. It is an indication that Beijing seeks to secure its interests abroad, including via the use of its armed forces. And its interests are very considerable.”

US political analyst, James Poulos writing in The Week, a Washington publication, warned that Washington’s presence in the resources-rich African continent was fading while China’s is growing strongly. He notes, “…Ethiopia just booted the US out of a drone base Washington had hoped to expand…In other words, as China sets up shop in Djibouti, the US finds itself restricted to that country for its eastern African operations – a precarious toehold in a competitive environment. This year, Africa could become a new albatross for the US – and a new lifeline for China.”

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