China expands influence with military base in Africa
China’s efforts to exert soft power in the Horn of Africa reached new heights in July 2017 when it opened its first overseas military facility in 60 years with the inauguration of what Chinese officials call a logistics support base in Djibouti on Africa’s east coast.
Despite China’s reassurance that the base’s mission is to support naval escorts, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, defense analysts raised questions about China’s intentions. On a gateway facing Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Djibouti’s strategic position lies at the gate of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes crossing the Suez Canal.
“The Chinese Navy now reaches the Gulf of Aden, and it is only logical that it needs a facility for logistics and supply purposes,” said Dr. Ngeow Chow Bing, deputy director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaysia. “However, with increased Chinese presence and interests in the continent, the military facility takes on additional significance. It strengthens China’s ability to conduct evacuation operations with the possibility of conducting military operations.”
China’s interest in Africa is driven by the continent’s rich natural resources, Ngeow told FORUM.
“Because of perceived risks and low governance scores,” Ngeow said, “Africa has received relatively little economic interest from the developed world. So, this is a niche region for China’s enterprises.”
China’s continued investment in Africa gives it a foothold in countries such as Sudan and South Sudan, which have been left largely untended by Western investors. In addition to financing infrastructure projects, China also is Africa’s largest trading partner. China now trades about U.S. $160 billion in goods a year with Africa, The Economist magazine reported.
China’s expanding influence campaign has not gone unnoticed. Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist at Rand Corp., said the opening of the base, pictured, is a big step in an ongoing strategic effort.
“China has thrown itself in as a new strategic player in the region in a big and dramatic manner,” Shurkin said, “as if to announce, ‘I am here! And you’re going to have to pay more attention to me.’ The next stage will be when China actually tries to use this naval base to shape world affairs, but we are not there yet.”
When it comes to Africa’s internal politics, China’s official policy is one of noninterference, Ngeow said. “So, African countries are free to develop ties with Western countries while being cultivated by China,” he said.
That policy, however, is being tested by tumultuous times in South Sudan. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, but civil war erupted two years later. The conflict has left tens of thousands of people dead and spurred a humanitarian crisis that forced millions from their homes.
To quell the violence, China not only has made a substantial peacekeeping contribution that included the deployment of combat troops, but it also has been mediating disputes between warring parties and engaging in multilateral peace talks.
“Basically, they are on a slippery slope,” Shurkin said. “The more and more China gets implicated in African conflicts, it is inevitable that they are going to be pulled further and further again into these issues.”
Hamid Sellak is a FORUM contributor reporting from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.