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Friday, May 16, 2008

Keen on business, China is yet to flex its formidable military muscle in Africa

by PATRICK MUTAHI (Daily Nation)

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A 489-foot Chinese freighter An Yue Jian docked at the port of Durban in South Africa last month with three million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3,000 mortar rounds and 1,500 rocket- propelled grenades destined for landlocked Zimbabwe.
However, the ship instantly drew controversy with dockworkers refusing to unload the cargo. Zambia, which chairs the Southern African Development Community (SADC) grouping, also urged other regional states to bar the vessel from entering their waters. It was rightly feared the arms could deepen Zimbabwe’s election crisis and be used in a crackdown on the opposition.

Under immense local and international pressure, the ship was recalled to China.

Even though the heat has cooled down, it puts to question whether Beijing is in a position to protect its vast investments in Africa.

Tellingly, Sino-Africa trade has significantly increased from $11 billion (Sh660 billion) in 2000 to $65.9 billion (Sh4 trillion) in 2007, making it the continent’s third largest trade partner behind the United States and France. It is projected that by 2010, China will overtake the US and France as Africa’s biggest trading partner with a target of $100 billion (Sh7 trillion) trade surplus.

Thus, Beijing has swiftly become the most aggressive investor in Africa, rattling the West which has dominated Africa’s virgin markets. But this has also exposed the Asian giant to various security challenges.

In April 2007, nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopian oil engineers were killed during an assault on an oil exploration site operated by Sinopec’s Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

The militia group Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) also kidnapped seven Chinese men who it later released. The ONLF has repeatedly warned foreign oil companies to leave the Ethiopian region over which it has gone to war with Somalia.

In February 2007, four assailants raided a Chinese building materials plant in Kenya and killed one Chinese employee. In April 2006, the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) condemned China for taking a $2.2 billion stake in oil fields in delta. It detonated a car bomb and warned that Chinese investors would be “treated as thieves.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment has increased in Zambia since 2005, when an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine killed at least 46 workers and spawned complaints of unsafe working conditions and poor environmental practices. In 2004, rebels abducted Chinese workers in southern Sudan.

Despite the mounting insecurity to its investments, China is not building a military base in Africa. Rather, it is stepping up its ability to pursue a more confident and independent security policy in the continent by resorting to collective security policy with African countries.

Beijing’s game plan, it would appear, is to neutralise threats in Africa with its diplomatic charm. Consequently, as Beijing prepares to become Africa’s most prominent economic partner, its capability to respond to insecurity, though it has the capacity to do so, isn’t evident in the continent.

Un-manned combat aircraft

According to the US Defense Department Annual report released in May 2007, China is modernising its military in ways that give it options for launching surprise attacks on targets far from its borders.

The report cites the Army’s acquisition of long-endurance submarines, un-manned combat aircraft, additional precision-guided air-to-ground missiles and long-distance military communications systems.

“The People’s Liberation Army is pursuing a comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries,” the Pentagon report said.

Referring to a January 2007 test in which China shot down one of its own satellites with a missile, the report said the nation’s capability “poses dangers to human space flight and puts at risk the assets of all space-faring nations.”

But Beijing’s military build-up is not exceptional. Most external powers, for which Africa’s mineral wealth has become indispensable to their growth, have backed up their economic forays with a projection of military might. This is aimed at suppressing local resistance in their dominions or fending off their realms from other imperialist competitors.

Between 2000 and 2006, the US increased the number of its troops in Africa from 220 to nearly 1,000. This was alongside the establishment of the controversial New Africa Command (AFRICOM), announced when Chinese President Hu Jintao was completing a tour of the region in 2006.

The new military structure signifies Africa’s emerging strategic importance in the superpower’s economic and security calculus in order to contain terrorism and secure global oil wealth. At the same time, AFRICOM is viewed as a vehicle to counter the Chinese juggernaut in Africa.

This has raised eyebrows in Chinese academia. Lin Zhiyuan, the deputy director of the Academy of Military Sciences commented that “AFRICOM will surely facilitate coordinating or overseeing US military actions in African for an effective control of the whole of Africa.”

India is also expanding its military wings and its naval dominance in the strategic maritime shipping lanes around Africa. This has made Chinese security analysts worry about the safety of their supplies.

India currently imports 11 per cent of its oil from Africa (mostly Nigeria), but is seeking more, especially from Angola, leading in some cases to direct competition with China.

It is also searching for secure, long-term uranium supplies to feed its nuclear reactors, as well as other strategic minerals, meaning that South Africa is emerging as a key partner.

India is involved in a tripartite alliance with Brazil and South Africa under the IBSA Dialogue Forum. This is an effective co-operative approach to build a bridge between Asia and Africa. The alliance was set when the leaders of three regional goliaths, India’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Brazil’s Lula Da Silva, and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki introduced a new approach to south-south cooperation at the 2003 UN General Assembly, resulting in a trilateral India-Brazil-South Africa agreement.
IBSA has amplified its presence through numerous joint ventures. More importantly, India views the IBSA Free Trade Agreement with Brazil and South Africa as a “distinct possibility” of enhancing trade relationship with these countries. In addition, the defence ministers of the troika agreed in Pretoria on February 1, 2004 to hold joint military exercises and train their personnel.

India is also using the forum to enhance its maritime cooperation in order to boost regional security. Notably, both Delhi and Pretoria have long coastlines and maritime interests.

On the economic front, India has 2.2 million square kilometres of exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while South Africa’s EEZ is a million square kilometres.

Around 90 per cent of exports of both the countries are shipped. In addition, South Africa has six well-developed ports and a sound maritime infrastructure, with good facilities for ship repair and potential to get involved in shipbuilding.

Due to this strategic interest and maritime bond, in March 2006 India signed an agreement with South Africa to improve cooperation in merchant shipping and other related activities. The agreement provides for facilitating Indian companies to establish joint ventures in the field of maritime transportation, and ship building and repairs. Furthermore, the pact will also facilitate the exchange of information for accelerating the flow of commercial goods at sea and at port and encourage the strengthening of cooperation between merchant fleets.

India’s military presence

Along the East African coast India has signed defense agreements with Kenya, Madagascar and Mozambique. It has also initiated joint training programmes with Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa. Delhi has convinced island states such as Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles to cooperate on maritime surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Moreover, its fleet in the Indian Ocean is turning into one of the most powerful naval forces of the region, including new state-of the-art aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

This build up by the World’s largest democracy is multi-pronged: Economically for market and resources; politically for international influence and support for possible permanent membership in the UN Security Council, and competing with China for influence in Africa.

However, Delhi appears to be lagging behind Beijing in the trade stakes. Indo-African trade climbed to $30bn (Sh1.8 trillion) in 2007, but Sino-African trade was near $66bn (Sh4 trillion).

Despite the fact that all major powers have been deploying naval vessels to combat piracy or to keep the maritime supply lines in the waters surrounding Africa open, the Chinese Navy has kept its flag down.

It has no military bases in Africa like the United States, UK or France. Likewise, Beijing does not train African soldiers to deal with hostility perceived by Beijing as a threat to its national interests.

In Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Gabon, Beijing has dispatched military teams to assist in the maintenance of equipment, rather than providing training for specific warfare activities. In Zambia and Algeria, the collaboration is limited to medical aid. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic is constantly facing the need to protect its citizens and companies abroad.

The long-term risk is that local tensions and conflicts will entice external powers to interfere and to exploit this volatility to gain clout at the expense of the Chinese. In response to such scenarios, China has opted to work with host governments.

“China will cooperate closely with immigration departments of African countries in tackling the problem of illegal migration, improve exchange of immigration control information and set up an unhampered and efficient channel for intelligence and information exchange,” China’s 2006 Africa Policy stated.

Chinese bilateral military exchanges with other armed forces expanded significantly with 174 high-level visits in 2001 to over 210 in 2006. However, the increasing trend was not maintained in Africa, where such two-pronged exchanges have remained stable at an annual average of 26.

Beijing has established a permanent military dialogue only with South Africa. In addition, according to Jonathan Holslag a Researcher on China-Africa Affairs, “the number of Chinese military attach├ęs and their support staff has barely or not expanded at all in the last few years. In fact, only in 15 countries are Chinese military attach├ęs dispatched on a permanent basis.”

In terms of military aid, there is no evidence that China’s military aid aims at counterbalancing other powers, such as the United States. Apart from Sudan and Zimbabwe, most countries to have received Chinese aid in the last few years are also supplied by Washington. Moreover, in 2007 Beijing temporarily froze the supply of heavy arms to Khartoum after pressure from the Western countries.

On the other hand, Beijing has instructed its embassies in Africa to keep a close watch on local security. In Sudan and Kenya, state-owned companies receive protection from local security forces. Beijing has also signed an agreement with South Africa to prevent the Chinese there from turning into a target for armed gangs.

The swift and successful evacuation of Chinese citizens recently from Chad demonstrated that it has developed operational scenarios to deal with emergencies.

Such measures might help Chinese citizens and companies to evade some of the risks, but they do not offer any guarantee for safeguarding its economic activities if the situation keeps deteriorating. This also does not tackle Beijing’s uneasiness with the military presence of other countries.

Instead of using a military presence to counter-balance other major powers, the People’s Republic joins collective security efforts within the framework of the UN and African regional organisations. Over the past few years this has evolved from passive support to active cooperation.

During the cold war, Beijing supported anti-Western groups. In 1971 when it assumed membership of the UN Security Council, China opposed all peacekeeping operations in Africa. After the Cold War, this position was replaced with a more moderate approach.

China viewed Africa’s conflicts as a result of structural violence, and hence had to be resolved in the same way. Consequently, China has supported UN peace keeping missions on the basis of a well defined and restricted mandate of maintaining sovereignty.

Non controversial peacekeeping operations - Somalia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Sierra Leone all got its green light.

When the Security Council decided to dispatch troops in Liberia in 2003, China even offered to contribute to this mission, and from then on it gradually increased the number of blue helmets to 1,800 in 2007.

China’s financial support to peacekeeping by the UN but also by regional organisations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States has also increased significantly.

However, China kept off any missions that were seen as infringing on the host country’s sovereignty. It opposed the European- supported Operation Turquoise in Rwanda; when Washington gave up its impartiality and called for broadened mandate of UNSOM and when France demanded an increase of the troop levels of the UN operation in Ivory Coast in 2004. Beijing did not veto these interventions, but abstained and kept aloof of the implementation.

In 2006, Beijing successfully appealed to the Sudanese Government to allow a combined force of UN and AU peace keeping force into Darfur. Historically, this marked the first time in China’s 35 years at UN Security Council that it has implored a sovereign country to accept the UN peace keeping force.

While a future need cannot be ruled for China to have a military base in Africa, currently it is playing safe by projecting itself as a partner. Evidently, it is well aware that putting up such a facility might reduce its diplomatic options and attract resistance in Africa, just as Washington is experiencing now, and raise suspicion everywhere.

Yet, as interests, perceptions and capacities are susceptible to change, it remains to be seen whether China will stay on this track of cooperative security.

(Patrick Mutahi heads a team of Researchers at Eastern and Horn of Africa Programme, Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi). Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.)


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