Africa Watch

Is China’s Africa policy set to become more militarised?

Walvis Bay soon to host Chinese naval base?
Walvis Bay.jpg

China agreed, for the first time, to provide military personnel for UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa and according to media reports plans to establish naval bases in Africa, which might signal a major Chinese policy shift.

A cornerstone of China’s Africa policy to date, which proved to be very advantageous, is Beijing’s commitment not to get involved in or criticise the domestic policy and actions of its African partners.

This policy has earned China the praise of many African states and has benefitted China at the expense of its global rivals in the quest for Africa’s natural resources.

While China is reaping the benefits of its non-interventionist approach, life is often hard and most challenging for many of the thousands of Chinese nationals working in Africa helping to expand Beijing’s footprint on the continent.

Major shift

Apprehensive of the potential damage it could cause to existing relations Beijing in the past preferred a low-keyed and tactful response, publically at least, when Chinese nationals were harassed or fell victim to unrest and violence or retribution from locals.

In what might signal the start of a major policy shift, Beijing recently announced that for the first time, it will provide manpower to a UN peacekeeping effort in Africa.

This turning point in China’s Africa policy came after more than 400 Chinese nationals were caught up in the civil war in South Sudan late in 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his sacked vice president, Gen. Riek Machar, of attempting a military coup.

A major Chinese evacuation effort to neighbouring Kenya was ordered but could not prevent the killing and abduction of some Chinese workers in South Sudan.

This was not the first time a major relief effort was required. In 2011 during the Libyan conflict the Chinese government had to evacuate over 30 000 Chinese citizens from that country and in total lost US$20 billion in investments.

Harm to Chinese nationals and China’s extended business interests and investments in South Sudan worth billions of US dollars – before Sudan split into two countries in 2011 China invested $20 billion and another $ 8billion was pledged to South Sudan after independence to be used for infrastructure and the oil sector – tipped the scales. Beijing was prompted to revise its strictly guarded policy of non-intervention – a move that represents a complete break from Beijing’s previously almost sacrosanct observed protocol of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, particularly in Africa.

A Chinese “Africom”

With many other business ventures across Africa it makes sense for China to increase its military footprint on the continent to protect Chinese interests and as a deterrent. Analysts are predicting that the expansion of a Chinese security footprint might eventually evolve into Beijing’s equivalent of America’s Africom.

With this in mind The Namibian newspaper recently revealed that the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (the second largest navy in the world in terms of tonnage, behind only the US Navy) are planning to build a naval base at Walvis Bay in the next 10 years.

Quoting information from the Chinese media it was reported that Walvis Bay will be one of 18 naval bases to be established in various regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Mynanmar in the northern Indian Ocean; Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique in the western Indian Ocean; and Seychelles and Madagascar in the central South Indian Ocean.

According to these reports, “… these three strategic lines will further enhance China's effectiveness in taking responsibility for maintaining the safety of international maritime routes thereby maintaining regional and world stability.”

The reports also state that the Chinese navy will not establish “US-style” military bases, yet it will not exclude the establishment of a number of so-called 'Overseas Strategic Support Bases' in accordance with prevailing international rules.

The Namibian and Chinese Defence Ministries have denied the accuracy of these reports but this is normal practice. 

United States' reaction

If China should increase its military presence in Africa it will certainly have the Americans sit up and take note.

With the formation of Africom (Africa Command) in 2007 the US established, under much protest at the time from African leaders, a permanent US military presence in Africa.

The decision by the Bush Administration to launch Africom was based on three considerations:

• to protect the US from possible terrorist attacks originating in planning and execution from Africa;

• to protect US interests, particularly economic interests in Africa; and

• to keep a close eye on growing Chinese influence, particularly economic, in Africa.

Against this background the US will find it difficult to justify any criticism should China decide to increase its military presence in Africa. In the past the US has often criticised China’s non-interventionist policy in Africa as irresponsible and self-serving and accused Beijing for dodging its responsibility as a leading world power.

Africom is a first line of defence and deterrent against possible terror attacks on American soil and protects US interests in Africa. An increased Chinese military presence in Africa has a similar if not more urgent mission – protecting the lives of thousands of Chinese citizens working in Africa.

Consequences

A bigger Chinese military presence in Africa could give rise to an escalation in rivalry and competition with the US but will never equal the dangerous levels experienced during the Cold War when two incompatible ideologies were pitted against each other. It could even be to Africa’s advantage.

An increase in military presence by the world’s two leading countries in Africa, in particular in the continent’s most violent and volatile hot spots and war zones, could bring more order and stability where Africa has thus far failed, especially if China and the US could agree to work together.

by Garth Cilliers

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