China’s Expanding African Military Footprint

Image by Phaga

Image by Phaga

Sun Tzu, in his seminal book The Art of War, argued that all warfare is fundamentally based on deception.

“When able to attack, we must seem unable; When using our forces, we must seem inactive; When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; When far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Throughout China’s history, this mantra has been at the core of its foreign policy, with Mao even instructing his generals not to miss any opportunity for deceit.

Closer to the present day, as the Middle Kingdom became more assertive on the world stage, its smoke and mirrors tactic took on new forms. Despite several public relations stunts – such as the country’s unbashful display of its first aircraft carrier – the major shift in China’s military strategy has so far escaped major public scrutiny. Africa’s exceedingly complex political and economic situation can be held up as a potent bellwether of Beijing’s military designs.

The African continent shares a long history with China and the Gulf of Aden is now being used by the country’s navy as part of its Silk Road commercial route. In recent decades economic links took off spectacularly. Bilateral trade went from $1 billion in 1980 to $166 billion in 2011, with Beijing displacing both the U.S. and former European colonial powers as the continent’s main trading partner.

This growth was facilitated less by the terms and finer details of the trade deals and rather more by what they didn’t stipulate: demands for internal political reform. China has long maintained a strong stance of non-interference in the domestic politics of African countries such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan. While some might welcome this policy, unrestricted weapons exports from Beijing have either worsened existing humanitarian crises in places such as Darfur, or have strengthened the rule of despots like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

What began as a purely mercantile relationship sweetened by loans, foreign direct investments, and below-market prices for exports, is now discreetly evolving into a deeper and far-reaching partnership that could unsettle the balance of power on the continent. Indeed, evidence is already pointing to a strong bilateral convergence of interests. A 2013 study found that China has actually managed to transform its trade relationship with African countries into active foreign policy support inside the UN and other international bodies. Among those African dictators who depend on Beijing’s largesse to cling to power, China’s voice now carries far more weight than outdated links with former colonial powers.

China’s string of pearls strategy

A leaked document from late 2014 showed that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has planned the establishment of 18 “Overseas Strategic Support Bases” in the Indian and Atlantic oceans, seven of which will be built in Africa in Namibia, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles and Madagascar. Under the cover of protecting its commercial interests in Africa, these bases are supposed to follow three strategic military objectives: fueling and material supply bases for peacetime use, supply bases for warships and fully functional navy bases for replenishment and maintenance of large warships.

Much has been said about China’s maritime strategy, dubbed the “String of Pearls” model, which seeks to disguise multiple military bases behind deep-water ports, stretching from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and Africa, which would give Beijing the capacity to project power on most of the southern hemisphere. But so far, China’s cautious approach has deceived many as to its true intentions.

A recent incident in the Indian Ocean provides the blueprint for China’s vaunted dominance of Africa. A PLAN nuclear submarine surfaced in the waters of Sri Lanka and strangely enough docked at the country’s Chinese-owned commercial port, the Colombo South Container Terminal, instead of berthing at the neighboring military port. The explanation is that Colombo handed over total control of the port to Beijing, in exchange for relaxing loan conditions. In the Maldives, a similar maritime project was ceded to Beijing after the project’s Chinese-issued loan carried an unsustainable interest rate.

Since Africa does not exist in a security vacuum, but instead plays host to an interwoven web of military alliances and defense agreements struck with either the U.S. or other Western nations, the presence of China’s navy risks creating deep fault lines. Djibouti is by far the best example of a country walking a fine line between its Western commitments and the allure of China’s deep pockets, set against the backdrop of the dictatorial rule of its President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

The former French colony is one of Africa’s most important strategic hubs, hosting a string of vital military bases from the U.S., Japan, France, Germany and the headquarters of the EU’s anti-piracy operation Atalanta. Nevertheless, Guelleh has extended a hand to China and has embarked on 14 Chinese-funded megaprojects, including airports and a port, with a total price tag of $9.8 billion, or six times more than its GDP.

What’s more, the government rescinded an agreement with a Dubai-based port operator for its main deep-water port (Doraleh) and sold it to the Chinese. Echoing Beijing’s inroads in Zimbabwe, bilateral ties were deepened after the signing of a strategic defense agreement, which sparked the ire of U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. In addition, with Chinese money flowing in, Guelleh chased off several Western multinationals, such as Mobil, Shell and Total, on trumped up charges.

Djibouti’s deteriorating business environment, along with the country’s shift away from Western powers are strong indications of China’s growing leverage with the government of Djibouti. Under the cover of commercial deals, the Chinese tiger is achieving a two-fold purpose: discreetly expanding the global reach of its military, while maintaining the impression that its interests are purely commercial. Which was precisely the lesson Sun Tzu taught his followers in the 5th century BC.

Image courtesy of Phaga


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About Tom Wirth

Originally from Düsseldorf, Tom is a recent graduate in International Affairs from St.Gallen (with a focus on Africa), and is an aspiring foreign policy analyst in preparation for a PhD in Conflict Analysis.

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