Hong Kong (CNN)Concerns in Washington are growing amid reports that China is poised to gain control of a major commercial port on the Horn of Africa, further consolidating the country's influence in the critically strategic region.
'Weaponizing capital': US worries over China's expanding role in Africa
In late February, the Djibouti government terminated a contract with Dubai-based port operator DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT), on the grounds it was "contrary to the fundamental interests of the nation."
The port is partly owned by China's state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings, which maintains a 23.5% stake in the port's parent company, Port de Djibouti SA. It is also located immediately adjacent to China's only overseas military base, on the west bank of the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance to the Red Sea, close to the Suez Canal.
The government's sudden seizure of the port, among the largest in Africa, has led to speculation it could fall into Chinese hands, with US lawmakers citing reports that Djibouti was preparing to hand it over to China as a "gift."
The Djibouti government relies heavily on investment capital from China and the two countries maintain close diplomatic ties.
On Tuesday, the future of the port dominated discussions during a hearing of the US House Armed Services Committee, with one senior US general warning that the US military could face "significant" consequences should China take control of the port.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the US' top military commander in Africa, said Chinese control of the port could result in restrictions on its use, potentially cutting off access to a key US resupply route and naval refueling stop.
The port currently constitutes the primary access point for American, French, Italian and Japanese bases in Djibouti. The US base, Camp Lemonnier, is home to an estimated 4,000 personnel, including various special forces troops, and is used as a staging point for US military and counter-terrorism operations throughout Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.
"If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant," said Waldhauser. "When we talk about influence and access, this is a classic example with regards to China, of how we've got to proceed and how we've got to be careful as we move forward."
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not comment directly on Djibouti during a regular press briefing Wednesday. When asked about the port, he said he was "not aware of the specific situation," adding that China hoped the US would view "China-Africa cooperation in an objective and unbiased manner.'
However, the question of China's role in Djibouti did appear in an article published Wednesday in China's state-owned Global Times, in which US concerns were dismissed as "pointless."
Quoting Song Zhongping, a military expert, the article argued that if a Chinese company were to gain the right to operate the port, "it would be based on business and economic interests between China and Djibouti, and it has no intention at all to make trouble for the US military."
The government of Djibouti, led by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, has so far welcomed China's role in the country's economy, maintaining that because Djibouti is resource-poor, its development is dependent on maximizing its location, and increasing investment in port infrastructure.
To date, China has provided the East African nation with more than $1.4 billion in infrastructure funding, equivalent to 75% of Djibouti's