Peter Dörrie reports for Medium.com, Jan. 22, 2015, that China will increase its military presence in Africa as Chinese economic activities in the continent have expanded massively during the last decade.
According to David Shinn, a former American ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and an expert on China-Africa relations, China is realizing it can’t keep relying on African governments to protect its economic investment in Africa and the thousands of Chinese nationals who’ve moved to the continent.
China’s economic growth and internal stability relies on free and open trade routes. In 2008, when Somali pirates began abducting merchant ships on a weekly basis—and jacking up insurance costs—China joined the international naval mission to stop the hijackers.
Since China’s initial contribution to anti-piracy activities, it has greatly increased maritime cooperation in with Africa, holding exercises with Tanzania.
Officially, China abides by a strict hands-off policy when it comes to the internal affairs of other countries. And to be fair, Chinese intervention in Africa is nowhere near the scale practiced by the United States, France and some African countries. But Beijing hasn’t followed this practice consistently.
Beijing has relied on local governments to handle security for Chinese nationals in Africa. But this approach has met its limits. As an example, when civil war broke out in Libya four years ago, Beijing had to evacuate 36,000 Chinese nationals living in the country because Muammar Gaddafi wasn’t willing or able to do it. “China had to do the entire evacuation on its own without any assistance whatsoever,” recalls Shinn. “That was a wake-up call for the Chinese.”
Then there’s China’s considerable economic interests in Africa. As an example, China procures about 5% of its oil imports from South Sudan in east Africa. In 2013, South Sudan collapsed into civil war. China soon embarked on its first major military intervention in Africa—deploying 700 soldiers as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. Beijing’s diplomats also took on the role of direct mediators between the warring parties. On Jan. 12, the South Sudanese government and the rebels signed a Chinese-brokered cease fire.
China’s economic interests in Africa also include its most important business with African countries—the arms trade.
China has exported massive amounts of heavy and light weapons to the continent in recent years. In the 1960s and ’70s, Chinese weapons accounted for about 3% of all arms going into Africa, Shinn said. By 2011, around 25% of all arms going Africa, by dollar value were Chinese, a lot of which go to effectively pariah countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan, both of which are under European Union and U.S. arms embargoes.
Some examples of Chinese arms sales to Africa:
- Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco sold a massive delivery of small arms, ammunition, and anti-aircraft missiles to South Sudan’s government troops.
- The Chinese government is signing security-related partnerships with Egypt.
- China is providing warships to the Nigerian navy.
- China is sending hundreds of military personnel to support the response to Ebola in West Africa.
In an interview with RT in July 2014, “‘Cold battle’ for Africa: China’s economic interest vs. U.S. military activity,” Asia Times journalist Brendan O’Reilly said China and the United States are engaged in an ongoing rivalry for influence in Africa. US troops are in a broad swath of Africa from Mali in the west all the way through to the Central African Republic, Ethiopia into Somalia, as well as a major US military base in Djibouti. Since 2008 the US has established the US Africa Command to coordinate military activities in Africa.
O’Reilly said the US does roughly about 85 billion dollars a year in trade with Africa; China does 200 billion dollars in trade with Africa. So China is already dominating the continent economically, and that influence will only deepen.
See also Thompson Ayodele & Olusegun Sotola, “China in Africa: An Evaluation of Chinese Investment,” IPPA Working Paper Series (2014).