Djibouti - Election meddling, diplomatic spats, a military stand-off and a tit-for-tat on trade.
Relations between China and the United States are the worst they have ever been since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
The battle is playing out in-country, and on sea routes where naval powers tussle for dominance.
Last week, US vice president, Mike Pence, accused Beijing of using “covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets”, to influence next month’s crucial mid-term vote that could see Republican Party numbers slip in Congress.
“China wants a different American president,” Pence claimed.
Donald Trump aired the same view when he addressed the United Nations (UN) at the end of September.
“They do not want me to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” Trump said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused Trump of using “hearsay evidence” to create allegations “out of thin air”.
Africa and the Pacific are shaping up as battlegrounds for a conflict between the world’s two largest economies. As part of his tariff war, Trump has imposed duty on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports and on goods from a clutch of other countries including a 25% tax on steel and aluminium from South Africa.
Across the African continent, China and the US have defence attachés at a combined total of more than 100 embassies along with declared intelligence officers and a covert network of agents.
Since 2013 — according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — Chinese arms sales to Africa have jumped 55%.
And along the narrow strait past Djibouti on the only route between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, the US, France and China are ramping up their military bases.
Djibouti is small and hugely in debt to Beijing. And the rule of President Ismaïl Guelleh is frequently under attack from human rights groups, who allege torture and a lack of democracy.
The strategic importance of Djibouti’s shipping lane is mirrored south of China where naval and merchant vessels must negotiate the waters between islands that make up some of the world’s smallest countries.
China has a special gripe in the Pacific because Palau, the Solomons and the Marshall Islands — more than 1,200 reefs and dots of land spread across an area of sea larger than South Africa and Zimbabwe combined — maintain diplomatic links with Taiwan.
In the channel between Vietnam in the north and Malaysia and the Philippines to the south lie another chain of mostly uninhabited islands named after British sea captain Richard Spratley who first mapped them in 1843.
China, India, Britain, France, Australia, the US and a host of other powers maintain their right of “innocent passage” through the region, as defined by a UN treaty on Law of the Sea.
A journey is deemed innocent so long as it does not threaten “peace, good order or security”.
But events came close to war on 30 September when a Chinese destroyer almost touched the warship *USS Decatur *near the Spratleys, which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines while the Pentagon lands aircraft on one of the reefs.
Captain Charles Brown, spokesman for the US Pacific fleet said China had “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres accompanied by warnings for the *Decatur* to depart the area”.
He said US forces would, “continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows”.
In Shanghai, defence spokesman Col. Wu Qian hit back. “The Chinese military will resolutely perform its defense duties and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard our sovereignty and regional peace and stability,” he said.
Russia has come out in support of China, while Australian defence minister Christopher Pyne condemned Beijing’s “ongoing militarisation” of the South China Sea.
“We would view any use of intimidation or aggressive tactics as destabalising and potentially dangerous,” he said.
Much more difficult is ab-el-Mandeb, the strait between Djibouti and war-torn Yemen where exports from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and much of East Africa sail north to Europe along with more than 14m barrels of oil from the Persian Gulf.
Djibouti is host to the only permanent US military base in Africa and the largest post of the French Foreign Legion along with small units from Russia, Japan and Italy. But China has built its own barracks to house more troops than the joint strength of all the other bases.
Major-General Trust Magoba from Zimbabwe who serves as special advisor to the African Union office for Peace and Security sees trouble ahead.
“The establishment of foreign bases and the involvement of external forces in conflicts on the Horn of Africa is a worrisome development,” he said. And he called on all countries to focus on “peace, security and stability within the region”.
Djibouti’s value for ships from Africa and the world lies in a state-of-the-art container dock, but earlier this year President Guelleh signed a decree ousting Dubai-firm DP World from a 50-year contract to manage the port.
A London court has repeatedly ruled the contract valid only to be snubbed by Djibouti which claims DP World had not fulfilled its obligations and even accusing the firm of economic sabotage.
DP World has made clear it will not surrender its rights, but allies have been hard to find. The US and France – two of the world’s greatest maritime powers – are hostage to Guelleh’s goodwill in order to keep their troops on his soil.
However, disquiet is growing in Congress, with letters of concern sent to cabinet, even to President Trump, warning of Washington’s vulnerability if China were to gain any part of the DP World contract to run the port. Guelleh has assured them this will not happen.
Alabama congressman Mo Brooks is not convinced. Brooks sits on both the Armed Forces and Foreign Affairs committees and has written to US ambassador at the United Nations, Nikki Hayley.
“Mr Guelleh has never been one to respect the rule of law,” he wrote. Guelleh’s “dictatorial reign,” had been “fuelled by a steady flow of Chinese cash, palaces and gifts.”
He called on Ambassador Haley to use her influence to curb Guelleh’s “reckless and unscrupulous behaviour”, and ensure his respect for “international norms, judicial bodies and the rule of law”.
Analysts agree that tension in the Spratley Islands and along the coast of Djibouti is likely to rise, and with no side willing to lose face. - CAJ News