Hidden Dragons in Sino-African Relations

South Africa

© Shutterstock

February 05, 2016 23:57 EDT

China-Africa relations grow to be even more complicated after crucial events in 2015. 

Powerful nations tend to balk at criticism that they meddle in the affairs of other states, professing to only involve themselves in issues that affect their interests, or those which take place in their own backyard. But as rich countries grow into superpowers, the size of their backyard grows exponentially. If a recent law passed in China is any indication, then it seems that the burgeoning superpower is readying itself militarily to embark upon a massive extension of its sphere of interest.

The counterterrorism law, rubber stamped in December 2015, allows Chinese forces to conduct counterterrorism operations overseas for the first time. With Beijing ramping up its presence in Africa, what does this new law say about future Chinese involvement on the continent?

Active China

In keeping with this new mandate, the Chinese marine corps began desert training exercises in Xinjiang province, over 2000 kilometers from the sea. This is an indication that authorities in Beijing are increasingly worried about the continued strife in the Muslim-majority province and eager to make a show of force to head off any potential separatist movement.

Of greater unease to Western capitals, these maneuvers also send a message that the Chinese are projecting their power in the strengthening and conditioning of their marines, capable of rapid deployment anywhere in the world. Seeing as how Beijing has expanded its military patrols off the Horn of Africa, the choice of a sandy environment for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) first mock battleground becomes even more obvious.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is limbering up to defend the homeland’s commercial interests, as Beijing is rolling out along the proposed One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. This 21st century redux of the ancient land and sea routes by which China traded with the world is set to see north of a trillion dollars of Chinese state-backed investment in the coming decades, much of it going into volatile political regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Pakistan. It is no surprise that Beijing wants to ensure it has the military capacity to protect its investments.

Arguably, the lynchpin in the OBOR project is the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, where China’s first overseas military base is currently being built. Already home to US, Italian, Japanese, German and French bases, the Chinese are attracted to Djibouti for the same reason all are: as an outpost for ensuring safe passage of oil shipments from the Persian Gulf, as well as unfettered access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

Vital as Djibouti will become to the successful functioning the OBOR in Asia, it also marks the thin-end of the wedge for China’s involvement in Africa. China has been investing heavily in Africa over the past 15 years and is now its biggest trade partner, outstripping the European Union and the United States.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping © Shutterstock

Wherever natural resources are to be found, Chinese companies have moved in to build the necessary infrastructure to mine and transport them back to China. Significant examples include the $12 billion coastal railway in Nigeria, China’s largest foreign contract to date, and a deal worth over $7 billion to swap infrastructural development for access to copper and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the tangible benefits from such mega-projects, China has come under fire from observers for its no-questions-asked approach, which is seen as legitimizing autocratic governments and undermining human rights and environmental standards.

As this author has written before at Fair Observer, Djibouti is one such example. Buoyed by Chinese investment, which has offset the rather stabilizing American presence, the government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh has become increasingly autocratic. In December 2015, security forces killed 19 activists and opposition figures in the bloodiest clash with pro-democracy elements in years. Djibouti has also stepped up its aggressive harassment of journalists, arresting and torturing two prominent figures. The situation has taken a turn for the worse, and will probably degrade even further ahead of the April polls. While the US issued a stern communiqué condemning the violence, China, naturally, has kept silent.

Losing the war for hearts and minds

The extent to which ordinary Africans actually benefit from China’s growing presence is, therefore, limited. So far, China has been more interested in making friends with the ruling class and not, in fact, with the hoi polloi. While billions were flowing to the coffers of presidential palaces, over a million Chinese immigrants moved to Africa to work on projects, depriving local Africans of much needed employment. As a result, anti-Chinese sentiment is rising.

In Angola, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), a militant group fighting for independence for Cabinda, the oil rich region of the country, has demanded that all Chinese workers leave the region or risk being “severely punished.” Add to this the killing of three Chinese executives in Mali last November by Islamist terrorists and one might wonder how long it will be before China’s policy of nonintervention is put to the test in Africa.

This is only exacerbated by China’s economic reorientation away from resource heavy manufacturing toward a Western consumption-based model, resulting in a slump in commodity prices—hitting African economies hard and sparking fears that Beijing would retreat from the continent. Fears were allayed by the recent China-Africa Cooperation Summit in Johannesburg, where China committed to $60 billion in further development, up significantly from the $20 billion pledged at the last meeting in 2012.

Again, the money will come with no strings attached, and there are signs that a backlash is stirring against the Chinese development model, which seems to consider Africa as a place where it can get away with practices that would be illegal elsewhere. The highly touted contract to develop bauxite mines in Guinea, for example, only came about after Indonesia and Australia closed their doors to Chinese companies on environmental grounds. Malaysia is also considering shutting down its bauxite industry, after Chinese demand led to the creation of huge illegal operations that leveled forests and farms, infested waters with mercury and arsenic, and exposed thousands to carcinogens.

From expanding its counterterrorism capabilities, to building a military outpost in Djibouti, to rising anti-Chinese sentiment, Beijing will soon discover that moving forward the posts of its African backyard is easier said than done.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Donvictorio /

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