The US is wary of China's military ambitions in Africa

  • The top US commander in Africa recently said China’s new naval pier in Djibouti could support an aircraft carrier.
  • China’s peacekeeping deployments in Africa are seen as a potential excuse to build up its military presence on the continent.
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With a population of under 1 million, Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is one of the smallest countries on the continent.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its strategic location, overlooking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

It is that location that has made it a hub for foreign militaries. Before 2017, the United States, France, Japan and Italy had established bases for their armed forces in the country. China arrived, setting up what it described as a logistics facility for resupplying Chinese vessels on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

That facility houses between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese navy personnel, according to various reports. About 12 km away, the US’s Camp Lemonnier military base houses 3,400 personnel.

Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said in Africa or the Arctic, the US did not want to see a challenger upset its dominant global military presence.

“Chinese participating in peacekeeping missions may not turn too many heads at the Pentagon, but China’s Djibouti base has military capabilities that extend far beyond the logistical needs of any peace or humanitarian mission,” Patey said.

US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, leader of US Africa Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20 that China “continues to expand their base in Djibouti into a platform to power across the continent and its waters — completing a large naval pier this year.”

He said the recently completed pier at the Chinese naval base in Djibouti was large enough to support an aircraft carrier.

Townsend said Beijing sought to open more bases, tying their commercial seaport investments in East, West and Southern Africa closely with involvement by Chinese military forces to further their geostrategic interests.

Reflecting those concerns, US Sen. Robert Menendez has sponsored a bill proposing to deny help to governments that allow China’s People’s Liberation Army to host a military installation.

China has not responded to Washington’s latest claims. But last year, when the US Department of Defence alleged in its annual report to Congress that Beijing was planning to set up more military bases in Africa, China’s foreign ministry denied the reports and urged the US to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset, stop issuing irresponsible reports year after year.”

Jeffrey Becker, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Programme at the Centre for Naval Analyses, said that for China establishing a second African base was certainly a possibility as China’s interests in Africa and the surrounding regions continued to grow.

“Places such as Kenya and Tanzania on Africa’s east coast, or Namibia along the Atlantic, have been mentioned as possible locations,” Becker said.

“A second base in Africa would improve China’s ability to conduct a range of operations, including evacuating Chinese citizens in times of crisis and protecting China’s access to key maritime chokepoints in the region, which are critical to China’s trade and energy imports.”

Even if China were to open bases in those countries, Patey said “these plans may still pale in comparison to the hundreds of bases operated by the United States, but if enacted they would still extend China’s military reach far from its mainland and near waters.”

But US concern about China’s security presence in Africa was not especially grounded in national security rationale, according to Samuel Ramani, a tutor in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford in Britain.

Ramani said China and the US broadly supported a stable continental order and neither saw insurgencies or terrorism to their advantage. But Townsend’s comments reflected the US geopolitical rivalry with China and concerns about losing influence to China, Ramani said.

“It is about losing access to oil and mining resources, further erosion of US leverage in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and China gaining more influence, perhaps in concert with Russia, on Indian Ocean security,” Ramani said.

He said Beijing had been cautious about its next moves concerning naval bases in Africa.

“Sao Tome and Principe was rumoured as a naval base in 2018 and there are persistent rumours about Namibia being the site of an army base. Overall though, I see China treading cautiously and not proceeding to establish a base in the near future,” Ramani said.

David Shinn, a former US diplomat and a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the US had always been concerned about the global expansion of the PLA Navy, including its base in Djibouti.

“Over the short and medium term, I expect China will pursue dual-use port facilities in African waters rather than new military bases,” Shinn said. “That is one reason why China is pursuing so many equity investments in African ports.”

John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project, said the US had been encouraging China’s participation in peacekeeping as a means of showing that it was indeed a “responsible stakeholder.” But he said potential concerns included the proliferation of weapons and the possible acquisition of basing rights.

Calabrese said China’s sudden need to evacuate thousands of expatriate workers from Libya during the Arab spring drove home the need for China to develop the capacity to protect its far-flung overseas interests and assets.

Further, Calabrese said the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative extended and deepened Chinese commercial activities in the zone around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa domain in East Africa, justifying the need for a military presence in and around critical waterways and choke points at the Western extremity of the Maritime Silk Road.

Besides making baby steps as a blue-water navy, China is a key player in the UN-led peacekeeping missions in Africa, known as the blue helmets. The number of Chinese peacekeepers in Africa peaked at 2,620 in 2015 and then declined to about 2,100.

Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “there is a longer-term worry that Beijing could use its peacekeeping deployments as an excuse for building up military bases in Africa, ostensibly to support the blue helmets.”

However, he said Western fears about China’s peacekeeping ambitions were overstated and that “China has adopted a fairly cautious approach to UN deployments since 2017 when it suffered fatalities in Mali and South Sudan.”

“China’s single biggest UN deployment is in South Sudan, it has an infantry battalion. This is, of course, in part linked to China’s energy interests there,” Gowan said.

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