WASHINGTON • The top United States general for Africa has told lawmakers that the military could face "significant" consequences should China take a key port in Djibouti, as Beijing becomes increasingly muscular in Africa in an effort to expand its influence.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said he was in the process of rewriting US military strategy in the region with China in mind.
"China has been on the African continent for quite some time, but we, as a combatant command, have not dealt with it in terms of a strategic interest," Gen Waldhauser said.
"We are taking baby steps in that regard."
Last month, Djibouti ended its contract with Dubai's DP World, one of the world's biggest port operators, to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, citing failure to resolve a dispute that began in 2012.
DP World called the move an illegal seizure of the terminal and said it had begun new arbitration proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration.
During a US congressional hearing on Tuesday, which was dominated by concerns about China's role in Africa, lawmakers said they had seen reports that Djibouti seized control of the port to give it to China as a gift.
China has already built a military base in Djibouti, just kilometres from a critical US military base.
"If this was an illegal seizure of that port, what is to say that government wouldn't illegally terminate our lease before its term is up," said Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican.
In a letter to US Defence Secretary James Mattis, Mr Byrne said he was concerned about China's influence in Djibouti and the impact it would have on US military and intelligence assets.
Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.
Gen Waldhauser said that if China placed restrictions on the port's use, it could affect resupplying the US base in Djibouti and the ability of US Navy ships to refuel there.
"If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant," Gen Waldhauser said during the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing.
Djibouti hosts a US military base that is home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.
"There are some indications of (China) looking for additional facilities, specifically on the eastern coast... So Djibouti happens to be the first - there will be more," Gen Waldhauser said.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he did not know anything about the port situation, but China's cooperation with Africa was neither aimed at any third party nor aimed at excluding anyone.
Gen Waldhauser said that the US would be unable to match the scale of China's investment throughout the continent, noting Beijing's construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even football stadiums.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday the US will give more than US$533 million (S$701 million) in humanitarian aid for victims of conflicts and drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the West and Central African countries bordering Lake Chad.
But Mr Tillerson contrasted the US' work on the African continent, which he said promoted "sustainable growth", with that of China, which recently pledged US$124 billion for its Silk Road plan to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and other places.
Mr Tillerson said China's investment in Africa "encouraged dependency".