China has established itself in Africa in substantive ways, enlarging its footprint there and broadening its ties to the continent. This development points to an Asian nation that is exerting itself on the world stage and making its presence known as a global superpower. The most recent sign of a heightened Chinese presence in Africa is the announcement of the first China-Africa defense and security forum, which China will host in late June.
The Chinese military announced the forum will take place from June 26 to July 10, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua. The purpose of the event, convened by the Ministry of National Defense, is to “deepen the China-Africa comprehensive strategic partnership, promote building a shared future for China and Africa, and meet the needs of Africa’s new security situations and China-Africa defense cooperation.” Participants in the forum will also visit the Chinese army, navy and air force.
This inaugural defense and security meeting comes at a time of heightened political and economic cooperation between China and African nations, including crucial infrastructure investment, an increase in diplomatic relations, and China training the next generation of African leadership, as Quartz reported. Further, China has provided security assistance, and furthered a strategy of win-win cooperation on economic development in Africa that emphasizes mutual benefits, bilateral cooperation and noninterference in the internal affairs of African nations.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there are five components to China’s strategy in Africa towards a goal of increasing the nation’s global prominence: economic engagement, military interests, UN peacekeeping, political party training and soft power. There are 1 million Chinese migrants in Africa, and an estimated 12 percent of Africa’s industrial output — $500 billion each year — is handled by Chinese companies, of which more than 10,000 are operating in Africa.
China’s close security and military relationship with the African continent could help protect the nation’s vast international investments and economic interests, allowing it to police the trade routes that support the Chinese economy. China is undertaking a global “Belt and Road” initiative, also known as “One Belt, One Road” and “Silk Road.” Regarded by China as the largest project of the century, this super-project, covering infrastructure, transportation and energy, is a network of railroads and shipping lanes in 70 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The countries in Belt and Road by now represent one-third of the world’s GDP. Already a trillion-dollar project, the Belt and Road initiative could cost $4 to $8 trillion and encompass 62 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global economic output upon its scheduled completion date in 2049.
Among some of Chinese projects across Africa include an Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway, and other projects under development in Congo, Tanzania and other nations, all with the promise of sustainable development. In addition, a China-Africa Development Fund has promoted Sino-African economic cooperation, attracted investment and bolster economic development.
As a part of the Belt and Road project, which provides the promise of prosperity and modernized infrastructure to underdeveloped and developing nations from East Africa to the South China Sea, Beijing has also acquired over a dozen ports across the Indian Ocean in a move to increase its political and military influence. This according to a report (pdf) released in April by the nonprofit organization C4ADS.
The report notes that over the last decade China has “significantly increased its global investments,” especially international and maritime infrastructure. Meanwhile, since China announced the Belt and Road initiative, Chinese companies have pledged billions of dollars to develop sea ports and similar initiatives across the Indo-Pacific Region. “The BRI, China’s guiding foreign policy doctrine and one of the most ambitious economic initiatives in modern history, is portrayed by Chinese leaders as creating win-win economic development for all nations. Yet, some states question whether China’s infrastructure investments are driven by strategic interests,” the report says. “The BRI is trumpeted by China as a ‘win-win’ opportunity for all parties that does not serve Beijing’s geostrategic agenda. However, despite the rhetorical distinction between commercial benefit and national security in official public policies, the two interests are actually inseparable.”
The report notes that China is co-opting commercial ports for military purposes, and that Chinese warships will have a transportation support point wherever a Chinese-owned company exists. Further, Chinese businesses have conducted employee training sessions on “national defense transportation” and the servicing of Chinese warships. In the Indian Ocean, the Chinese government is implementing a “first civilian, later military” port strategy in which state-owned enterprises and private companies are providing logistical support and replenishment to Chinese navy vessels patrolling the seas. In 2015, China announced it would lease land near Djibouti in the Horn of Africa for its first foreign military base, which opened last year. Such a tactic of expanding its military presence along with its international economic interests is consistent with that of other rising powers. While critics have expressed concerns that China is engaging in neocolonial exploitation of Africa, others claim China is not involved in a land grab or predatory activities on the continent.
China opened its first overseas support base in #Djibouti this morning (August 1) — the same day China marked the PLA’s 90th birthday pic.twitter.com/fJhlxCvfSu
— People’s Daily,China (@PDChina) August 1, 2017
China is also the largest supplier of peacekeepers among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, particularly in Africa, helping to mold the country’s image as a global peacekeeper. China maintains 700 troops in South Sudan, its first overseas peacekeeping mission, and has participated in UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mali and Sudan.
China flexing its economic and military muscles poses a challenge and even creates a sense of alarm for the United States, which through AFRICOM maintains 46 military bases in 24 African countries, a testament to the strategic importance of Africa, with its oil, natural gas and mineral reserves. The Djibouti base, one of a dozen overseas bases China is planning, poses a challenge to U.S. dominance and a threat to American leadership, and may require the United States cooperate with its rival, as the African country is home to Camp Lemonnier — a base of 4,000 U.S. troops and the only permanent American base in Africa.
There are challenges to China’s engagement in peace and security issues with Africa, the continent’s largest partner in trade, investment, and development. For example, the relationship could create more African dependency on external powers, and there is no guarantee the relationship will benefit Africa’s economic, political and security interests. Further, while China positions itself as a true partner with Africa rather than a colonizer, some people view China as another power, a rival to the Western nations who are vying for the resources on the continent. African nations must engage with China to ensure their interests are being served, and the African Union and China must strengthen their partnership, as the African Peacebuilding Network recommends.