China into Africa
by Brian Hioe
Present Base-Building Efforts in Djibouti
WE MIGHT NOTE China’s frequent rhetoric about its desire simply to be treated equally with other members of the international community. But in claiming it should be rightfully accorded respect as a global power, China’s eyes are in fact firmly set on attaining the same status of global hegemony which the US currently enjoys in the present.
Actually, if China’s political and economic ascent has raised much in the way of anxieties, China’s entrance into the international community comes late. Arguably it is America that in fact paved the way for the present rise of China by facilitating China’s entrance into the international community, which occurred only after Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Chinese refugees from Yemen in Djibouti in front of a Chinese missile frigate in March. Chinese military presence in Djibouti for some time and indications that China was hoping to build a base does not make recent announcements very surprising. PhotoCredit: Xinhua/Pan Siwei
This was, of course, far before the market reforms which took place in China during the Deng period that led to the transition of China to the form of state capitalism, as what we see today as the rise of China as an economic giant in the last ten years. But if America has played a crucial role in the present rise of China, it would seem that there would be one model for a global superpower in the present—and it is America. It would also be that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only remaining superpower left in the world seemed to be America. Thus, it should not be a surprise if China wishes to become a superpower, it is compelled in some sense to imitate America.
This is what we see at present with base-building efforts by China in the small African nation of Djibouti. Although it is that at present the US has over 800 bases in 80 countries across the world, this will be China’s first overseas military base.
Disparity Between Chinese and American Power
WHILE WE MIGHT point to the massive disparity in the extension of American and Chinese military power, China’s base-building efforts in Djibouti have provoked some anxiety. China has one of the largest militaries in the world, but is in many ways struggling to catch up to the US. In terms of its navy, for example, China, has only one aircraft carrier, which was retrofitted from a former Soviet vessel originally slated to be turned into a floating casino.
China has as of late been attempting to demonstrate its military power and the sophisticated military equipment it has developed, as we saw in the large-scale military parade which we saw in Beijing in September, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War. Certainly, China’s base-building efforts in Djibouti also seems to demonstrate to the world that China is taking new steps in advancing its military capacities.
As part of its efforts in asserting parity with western powers, we see recent attempts by China to insert itself into recent military intervention against ISIS as well. With a French-led international coalition targeting ISIS after recent terror attacks in Paris that left over 130 dead, China has attempted to awkwardly insert itself into the War on Terror narrative in order to justify its domestic efforts at putting down Islamic militants in Xinjiang aiming at the independence of East Turkestan from China. In this, China sought to establish proof of ties between Islamic militants in Xinjiang and ISIS.
With the deaths of Chinese citizens at the hands of ISIS, China has also recently announced that it would join with Russian efforts at combating ISIS in Syria, though it remains unclear in what capacity. What we broadly see, however, is how China is largely playing a game of attempting to catch up to the western world and mimicking the actions of the west—in the hopes that this will accrue “respect” and “prestige” for China. It is quite noteworthy, however, that the Chinese state would have a proactive interest in intervening against ISIS when many Chinese citizens do not see that ISIS as something China should get involved in, from the perspective that ISIS is something that does not concern China, but concerns only the western world.
The People’s Daily posted the above picture after the Paris attacks as part of its attempt to link ISIS to domestic militants in Xinjiang. The picture is of Chinese armed police, posing after carrying out a raid on suspected militants. Photo credit: Weibo
China sees the world at large as respecting American global power in the present and hopes to accomplish the same for itself in the future. Therefore, China is in some way attempting to replicate American global power in the way of using economic means to extend political power. China’s recently established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is an attempt to create an analogue to the America-dominated IMF. The AIIB would be a means for China to extend its political influence through economic means, as the IMF was a vehicle of American power through economic means, by way of its ability to set conditions for the restructuring of national economies through conditional loans.
Is China Any Different From America?
BUT WHERE CHINA suggests it would be different from America, it is through a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of its allies. This is a policy deliberately framed as opposite to that of America’s undue interference in the affairs of other nations, including its allies. It is actually that if many of China’s present allies include countries which flagrantly violate human rights, China’s policy of non-intervention actually provides a carte blanche for these countries to continue their human rights violations.
China’s presence as an ally but silence on issues of human rights allows these countries to continue their actions, knowing that Chinese support will be a deterrent to criticism or actions taken by western powers. In a worst case scenario, China could always use its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to prevent the possibility of western intervention. A prominent example would be China’s support of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, which Xi Jinping recently visited, Zimbabwe also being a site of large Chinese investment.
In truth, even if China draws on the past discourse of Maoist third world solidarity or anti-imperialism to justify its alliances, for example, in regards to African nations it established relations on the basis of third world solidarity in the past, China’s disinterest in the the affairs of other countries is because it is only interested in forming alliances for its own benefits. China’s late entrance into the world community and its longstanding tensions with its immediate neighbors means that China is desperate for allies. Despite that its economic ascent has made its influence inescapable, in many ways China remains a pariah state.
And though China claims not to intervene in the affairs of its allies, this is only in regards to policy. China attempts to extend its political power through economic means in, for example, infrastructure building or aid projects which are presented as humanitarian in nature, but actually serve to facilitate the development of Chinese trading networks into Africa. Some speculate that these projects—sometimes justified under auspices of “south-south cooperation” between non-western countries—may actually be to provide a foothold for future resource grabs on the part of China, whether out of interest in Africa’s mineral deposits, oil, or even water supplies.
Accusations of imperialism or neocolonialism against China have already ensued in parts of Africa in which large Chinese worker populations are displacing residents or taking over businesses. Accusations of racism against Africans by Chinese in Africa have also ensued. Perhaps more the point, Chinese infrastructure construction projects financed through debt are sometimes of poor quality, and resultant debt extends Chinese power over countries in which construction projects take place. If China’s “One Belt, One Road” development plan is aimed at better integrating China into the world economy in Central and Western Asia, there have in fact been proposals to integrate Africa into “One Belt, One Road” as well.
But if it remains to be seen whether the Chinese state as a whole will move in the direction of global base-building in the manner of the US: is the establishment of a Chinese base in Djibouti an indicator of future trends and future attempts to build bases globally much like American military presence across the world? Certainly, apart from that tensions with locals would certainly increase if that were the case, if resistance to American bases globally is any indication, we would see the end to any claimed policy of non-intervention on the part of China and a shift towards attempting to take on a role similar to that of America’s in acting as the “world’s policeman.”
A Sign of Future Trends in World Power?
CHINA HAS AN interest in acquiring overseas maritime hubs for the development of trade, for example, as we saw Chinese government’s recent purchase of a majority stake in the Piraeus port in Athens from the Greek government. The Djibouti base, which will be based in the port city of Obock, is justified economically by China’s need to protect key commercial and trade routes, as a resupply station for the Chinese navy in defending against pirates off the coast of Africa. The establishment of the base comes after a period of much Chinese investment aimed at building up infrastructure in Djibouti.
It is unclear under what conditions the establishment of the Chinese base in Djibouti took place, though signed through a ten year contract. If China is imitating the model of the US in terms of overseas base-building, where US bases exist under both negotiable and non-negotiable conditions, depending on American relations with the country in which the base is located, there are further questions to be asked in the future. In fact, China’s new military base will coexist uncomfortably with both US, Japanese, and French bases that already exist in Djibouti, also as resupply stations for defending against piracy.
In this sense, the Chinese base at Djibouti may not rock the boat so much. It seems unlikely that Chinese troops would be stationed there in such high numbers as to lead to substantial tensions with local populations, or that China would risk stationing troops there in such numbers as might lead to conflict with the US, Japanese, and French. But is the Djibouti base a sign of future trends? Which is to say, is what we see in Djibouti the beginnings of a world-spanning imperialist base-building project by China in the future? That is what remains to be seen.