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Top US military commanders are worried about what China is up to around the world's most important waterways

Business Insider logo Business Insider 7/27/2022 insider@insider.com (Christopher Woody)
Ships in the Singapore Strait, which connects the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea, on September 21, 2021. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images © ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images Ships in the Singapore Strait, which connects the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea, on September 21, 2021. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images
  • The US military is increasingly concerned about China's presence near major maritime chokepoints.
  • Much of the world's commercial traffic uses those waterways, and they also have strategic military value.

US military leaders are increasingly wary of Chinese activity near the maritime chokepoints through which much of the world's commercial and military traffic passes.

The latest warnings come from the general in charge of US Southern Command and the general nominated to lead US Africa Command and echo those of other US officials who worry that China's presence around those strategically important waterways could be used to gather information of economic and military value or to interfere with seaborne traffic.

"I was just in Panama about a month ago and flying along the Panama Canal and looking at all the state-owned enterprises from the PRC on each side," US Army Gen. Laura Richardson, head of US Southern Command, said at the Aspen Security Conference on July 20, referring to the People's Republic of China.

"They look like civilian companies or state-owned enterprises that could be used for dual use and could be quickly changed over to a military capability," Richardson added.

Xi Jinping, Juan Carlos Varela standing in front of a boat: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and their wives at the Panama Canal, December 3, 2018. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images © LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images Chinese President Xi Jinping, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and their wives at the Panama Canal, December 3, 2018. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Richardson's predecessor often warned of China's involvement in the region's infrastructure, particularly its ports. Richardson continues to sound that alarm, calling Chinese activity around the canal one of her "greatest" strategic concerns.

While China doesn't have a military presence in Latin America, the comments by US military commanders reflect concerns that China's projects could be used to monitor activity in the canal and elsewhere around and above the region, gathering information that could have security implications.

China is pursuing the "largest military buildup in history," Richardson said, "so one should ask themselves why, when they have this very capable military, are they putting [in] and trying to gain access to critical infrastructure in other countries across the planet?"

China's first and so far only overseas military base is near another important maritime chokepoint: the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

Chinese troops and vehicles at the opening ceremony of China's military base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017. STR/AFP via Getty Images © STR/AFP via Getty Images Chinese troops and vehicles at the opening ceremony of China's military base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017. STR/AFP via Getty Images

China calls that base, which opened in 2017, a logistical support facility, and Chinese ships have conducted anti-piracy patrols nearby since the late 2000s.


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US commanders have expressed concern about China's activity at that base, which is only a few miles from a major US military outpost, and about Beijing's future plans for the facility.

"They have it there because probably in the future they want to have the ability to be able to affect the free flow of commerce that affects our global economy," US Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, who has been nominated to lead US Africa Command, said of the Djibouti base during his confirmation hearing on July 21.

The current head of Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, has warned that China is pursuing other bases in Africa and has upgraded its base in Djibouti, adding a pier large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier.

Langley looks set to maintain that focus. "That's a strategic chokepoint that needs to remain free for freedom of navigation of commerce," Langley told senators, calling it "a strategic point that we need to be really concerned about."

'Under increased threat'

The container ship Ever Given in the Suez Canal on March 27, 2021. Kristin Carringer/Maxar © Kristin Carringer/Maxar The container ship Ever Given in the Suez Canal on March 27, 2021. Kristin Carringer/Maxar

As competition between the US and China intensifies, officials from both countries have expressed concern about maritime chokepoints, viewing their accessibility as a matter of commercial and strategic importance.

China has long been concerned with the so-called Malacca Dilemma — its reliance on the flow of goods through the Malacca Strait between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Chinese experts often identify the Malacca and Bab al-Mandeb straits and the Suez and Panama canals, among others, as the world's main "strategic maritime corridors."

Since the mid-2010s, some two-thirds of China's overseas port projects have been in the Indian Ocean region, reflecting its interest in those waters and the connections they provide to energy suppliers and export markets, according to an analyst of Chinese foreign policy.

That region has "the greatest concentration of Chinese commercial activity, and it's also their most significant logistical corridor for security and strategic reasons," the analyst told Insider this spring, speaking anonymously because of professional commitments.

The US Navy is also more attuned to developments around maritime chokepoints and to the emergence of new ones.

A US Navy map of maritime areas and chokepoints considered "under increased threat." US Navy Navigation Plan 2022 © US Navy Navigation Plan 2022 A US Navy map of maritime areas and chokepoints considered "under increased threat." US Navy Navigation Plan 2022

In early 2020, the Navy's top officer, Adm. Michael Gilday, said that the increasing accessibility of the Arctic meant the Bering Strait could eventually be "strategically as important as the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz."

More recently, Gilday included the Malacca and Bab al-Mandab straits on a map of chokepoints "under increased threat" in the Navy's latest navigation plan, which describes the service's strategic outlook.

The plan, published this week, notes that US economic and national security "will continue to rely upon unrestricted seaborne trade, unimpeded access to markets, and a free and open rules-based order."

The days-long blockage of the Suez Canal by a container ship in March 2021 alerted many other US officials to the ease with which those waterways could be disrupted.

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, passed in December 2021, included an provision requiring the Defense Department to send Congress a report on "the threat of hostile kinetic attacks, cyber disruptions, and other form of sabotage" to the world's maritime chokepoints by mid-2022.

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