China’s Africa Pivot: A Cause for Alarm?

Chinese soldiers prepare for a military demonstration in July 2011. (Times Asi/Flickr CC).
Chinese soldiers prepare for a military demonstration in July 2011. (Times Asi/Flickr CC).

In late November, China announced its first-ever overseas military outpost in the strategic African state of Djibouti. Its purpose, according to the Chinese leadership, is to assist Chinese Navy ships on United Nations antipiracy missions. This comes on the heels of a security and defense agreement signed between Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan and Djibouti’s Minister of Defense in February 2014, which included the use of Djibouti as a port for the Chinese Navy as well as assistance in building up the operational capabilities of Djibouti’s military.

For some, this is a cause for alarm. China has until now refrained from emulating the United States’ longstanding policy of maintaining military bases in key geographic locations, condemning what it considers to be gestures of American imperialism and hegemony. Instead, Chinese foreign policy has centered on economic development. In March 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road initiative (also known as “One Belt One Road”), a $140 billion economic plan to consolidate and strengthen China’s geopolitical power. Similarly, on December 4, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in South Africa, President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in development assistance to Africa, including $5 billion in grants and interest-free loans.

What Beijing is slowly coming to realize, however, is that their economic interests are best served when developed hand-in-hand with military capabilities. The American practice of building bases where it serves national interests has allowed for continued US leverage and influence worldwide. If China hopes to continue its ascension into the upper echelons of international power, building up their military is not only a logical step; it’s a necessary one. Earlier this year and for the first time ever, China dispatched a combat battalion to take part in a United Nations peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, where Beijing has major oil interests. China’s 2015 military budget of about $145 billion was the second-largest in the world following the US, but many foreign analysts say China’s real military spending is significantly higher.

For China, focusing on Africa and Djibouti in particular is of critical importance. Strategically, Djibouti’s location on the Horn of Africa is ideally situated to protect oil imports from the Middle East that traverse the Indian Ocean on their way to China. From Djibouti, China gains greater access to the Arabian Peninsula. The United States recognizes Djibouti’s geographic importance and maintains a base there, as do France, Germany and Japan.

Currently, Beijing is funding 14 mega projects in Djibouti worth $9.8 billion, six times more than Djibouti’s GDP. China has invested heavily in infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of dollars spent upgrading the country’s undersized port. It has additionally financed a railroad extending from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to the Port of Djibouti—a project that cost billions of dollars. Beijing also cultivates its relationship with Djibouti by treating government officials to lavish ceremonies and summits more appropriate for leaders of greater global significance. Such political gestures, designed to stoke personal egos, can have a great effect in states where government officials wield significant power and wealth in their countries, such as Djibouti’s President Ismail Guelph and his top aides.

Africa presents a perfect opportunity for China as it begins flexing its foreign policy muscles. The continent, still reeling from the scars of its colonial past, lags behind all other continents in every human development metric possible. That’s why China, with its economics-based foreign policy, offers an attractive package for developing countries: a lack of stigma associated with former colonial powers, easy loan deals and a willingness to invest in projects Western institutions deem too risky. China has economic, political and military deals with numerous African states including Algeria, Ethiopia and Nigeria (three countries rich in energy resources). At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation on December 4th, following Xi Jinping’s announcement of $6 billion in development assistance, Zimbabwe President and current Chairman of the African Union Robert Mugabe said: “[Xi Jinping] is doing to us what we expected those who colonized us yesterday to do.”

China’s attractive economic deals aren’t just limited to infrastructure projects. It has a burgeoning arms and defense trade, and Chinese Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are already incredibly popular, especially in the Gulf. The price tag can be as little as $1 million for a Chinese Wing Loong I compared to $30 million for a US Reaper. Furthermore, the US has prohibitive policies on who can purchase their weapons and defense systems, while China does not. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iraq are all confirmed operators of Chinese drones. China’s military continues to expand; on New Year’s Eve, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that it was building its first indigenous aircraft carrier—the second one ever for the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

These developments have not escaped the notice of Western military and intelligence officials. The US maintains Camp Lemonnier, its only base in Africa, in Djibouti. Lemonnier is home to 4,000 American troops who train and conduct counterterrorism operations, including fighter planes and Predator UAV drone operations in Yemen and Somalia. In 2013, Washington announced a $1.3 billion expansion plan for Lemonnier. In response to the February 2014 Chinese-Djiboutian security agreement, the US agreed to pay double its previous rent for Lemonnier in the hope of maintaining positive relations with President Guelleh. Overall, US investment in Djibouti amounts to $70 million annually.

A May 2015 Diplomat article likens the situation in Djibouti to a “zero-sum [game], where one power’s gain can only come at the other one’s loss.” Yet I would be cautious with this comparison.

For one, China’s base should be a welcome asset to counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf, which is a good opportunity for China to assume more responsibility on an important multilateral issue. Furthermore, China does have a legitimate stake in responding to domestic pressure to protect its citizens in the region. During the Libyan civil war in 2011, the Chinese government extracted nearly 36,000 workers. In 2012, militants captured 29 Chinese workers on a road project in Sudan. In November 2015, three Chinese executives were killed when Islamic militants stormed a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Just before, ISIS announced that it had killed a Chinese captive, Fan Jinghui. China’s interest in the Middle East is also fueled by the rise of the Islamic State, which has recruited hundreds of Uyghurs (a contentious Chinese Muslim ethnic group) into its foreign fighter ranks. In December 2015, ISIS released its first ever Chinese language recruiting video.

With the inevitability of Chinese military expansion looming on the horizon, the US and China must improve their bilateral relations and allow for Djibouti to serve as a productive analog in the future. Not only does the Sino international development plan have more financing available than Western ones, but is also more receptive in regions such as Africa and parts of the Middle East. Reports have leaked of Chinese plans to open at least a dozen new overseas military bases. China has also already sought to gain strategic military access through economic incentives in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

It is imperative that the US and China work together on fostering bilateral efforts in a way that maximizes not only the efficacy of their efforts, but also works on achieving mutual interests such as economic development and human security. Despite what some analysts may believe are competing military agendas, China and the US have a plethora of mutual security interests that provide a forum for, at the very least, discussion.


The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Caroline Chen

Caroline Chen is a junior pursuing degrees in Economics and International Relations with a minor in Political Science at the University of Southern California. She has lived and studied abroad in China, Thailand, Turkey, South Africa and the Netherlands, and also speaks Mandarin and French. Her interests include political structures, global health, technology, human rights and international economic development. In particular, she is interested in sustainable development and the complexities of foreign emerging markets, especially those under non-democratic regimes. Particular regions of interest include Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Chen currently works as a national security and foreign policy intern for Democratic Leader Senator Harry Reid and the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She has also worked for the Larta Institute, AEG China, and USC’s US-China Institute. On campus, Chen is a fellow with the Levan Institute of Humanities and Ethics, a member of the Marshall Women’s Leadership Board, involved with Undergraduate Student Government and the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, and a former member of the Women’s Varsity Rowing team.