WASHINGTON - The top US general for Africa told lawmakers on Tuesday that the American 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.
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 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 miles 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 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, 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.
Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, said that if China placed restrictions on the port's use, it could affect resupplying the US base in Djibouti and the ability of Navy ships to refuel there.
"If the Chinese took over that port, then the consequences could be significant," Waldhauser said during the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing.
Djibouti hosts a vital US military base that is home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launchpad 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," Waldhauser said.