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Growing Chinese military presence in Africa

Privilege Musvanhiri, Hang Shuen Lee (afp,Reuters)December 9, 2015

As economic ties between China and African countries tighten, the Asian giant could make major foreign policy changes and depart from its strict hands-off policy regarding military intervention on the continent.

Chinese soldiers on duty against Somali pirates
Image: Reuters

Experts say Beijing will need to overcome its discomfort about overseas military bases as its forces are drawn into protecting China's growing economic interests in Africa.

China has always maintained a non intervention policy in host countries but this could now slowly change.

Historically, the Chinese have provided shadowy military assistance in the form of arms and training for African countries, some of which used them in their fight against colonial powers.

Among the countries that were helped by China to fight against colonial rule are Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Algeria and Angola.

During the 1960s, under Mao Zedong, China was a frontline combatant in global ideological battles and supported liberation movements in Africa.

Now, a Chinese naval logistics center is to be built in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, a development that has raised questions about whether Beijing will seek to establish military bases overseas in the future.

The Asian giant has no known foreign military bases and has consistently claimed that it will not seek to set up any.

Beijing authorities say the setting up of a military facility on the Horn of Africa does not amount to a military base like those maintained by the US and France.

They argue that the Djibouti naval center could ease difficulties in refueling and replenishing Chinese navy ships and provide recreation facilities for officers and sailors taking part in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.

Two Chinese workers at the construction site of the new African Union conference center in Addis Ababa
Chinese workers helped build the new AU conference center in Addis Ababa, one of many projects funded by ChinaImage: Getty Images

Military presence increasing to protect investments

Growing economic and diplomatic interests in Africa provide a strong reason for Beijing to increase its military foothold on the continent, analysts say.

Last week at the two-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China announced a $60 billion (55 billion euros) package for Africa over three years to fund development on the continent .

China's economic expansion in Africa warrants it to strategically position itself militarily. If an enemy were to target Chinese interests in Africa, it would strike the economic epicenter," Nelson Alusala, senior researcher at the South Africa-based Institute of Security Studies, said.

"China is mostly dwelling on preventive diplomacy where it goes in to deter rather than caring when the crisis has already happened. China will not change its approach of peaceful diplomacy to aggression," Alusala told DW.

Beijing's preparedness to protect its nationals abroad was put to the test when the civil war in Libya broke out four years ago. China had to hastily evacuate 36,000 of its nationals.

The Chinese government had to use military planes in a joint operation with state-owned companies to execute the largest evacuation mission the People’s Republic of China had ever mounted.

The recent deaths of three Chinese business executives at the hands of Islamist militants who attacked a hotel in Mali are said to have increased pressure on President Xi Jinping as to how to respond to such incidents.

Up to now, China relied on local governments to handle security for its nationals in Africa, but this approach seems to be reaching its limit.

"African countries are keen on development and the only way to foster this is by ensuring peace. Safety in societies has to be improved by fighting against terrorism," said Liu Hongwu, director of the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, China.

In the world's youngest nation - South Sudan - China has 700 soldiers participating in a UN peace keeping mission. China obtains about five percent of its oil imports from South Sudan.

"China's political influence in Africa is inescapable. Africa has a significant amount of conflict. The investment risk is big. Politics and economics are very closely interlinked," Ross Anthony director of the Center for Chinese studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, told DW.

A gunman holding a machine gun
A machine gun in Malakal, South Sudan, one of the regions to which China provides arms.Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pungovschi

The human rights issue

Critics of Chinese military engagement in Africa say China often props up regimes with bad human rights records by supplying them with arms.

The Asian nation does not ask questions about the integrity and democratic values of friendly countries.

However, according to Anthony, China is often unfairly singled out for supplying light weaponry to African countries.

"Other western countries are notorious for propping up certain dictators in Africa. They covertly do this but in the open make themselves champions of democracy." he said.

Other observers say the increased military presence is not sinister since China has not acted aggressively in any African state.

"All the peace operations that the Chinese carry out are based on the invitation from the UN as well as the African countries. The military presence of China in Africa is still very small. The US and France both have already set up military bases in Africa," Liu said.

Collaboration to fight terrorism

China does not regard any African country as an enemy but stateless actors like terrorists are now the common enemy.

Police escorting a freed hostage from the Mali Radison Hotel attack
The Mali hotel siege in November 2015 left three Chinese guests deadImage: Imago

To fight terrorism, cross-border collaboration is becoming increasingly popular.

China and other countries who were not formally allies are now putting differences aside to confront this common threat.

"The degree of safeness in some African countries is worsening. So China will focus more on protecting its civilians' security in future cooperation. China is taking a very careful stance in terms of fighting against terrorism in Africa," Liu said.