Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 26, 2017

The African continent presents conditions for competition and cooperation between Washington and Beijing.

China's moves in Africa

This is the twenty fifth part of the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.

On 12 July 2017, the Chinese state media reported the first shipment of equipment and personnel to Djibouti from China. China announced the plan of building a logistics facility in Djibouti initially in 2015. Subsequently, Beijing began building the facility in Djibouti city in 2016, underlining China’s growing presence in the African continent. This article addresses two issues about the Chinese presence in the Horn of Africa. The first issue pertains to whether a China-US conflict is possible in Africa. The question is pertinent because concerns have been sparked off both in the US and India due to the Chinese move in Djibouti. The second related question is about the possibility of limited cooperation between China and the US in Africa.

Though China calls it a logistics facility, its naval base in Djibouti is located just a few miles from Camp Lemonier, one of the US’ largest and most important overseas bases. Camp Lemonier was established by the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It hosts 4,000 US military personnel. The US conducts highly clandestine missions including targeted drone killings in the West Asia and the Horn of Africa. In addition, apart from the US, Japan, Italy and France, all American allies also have their naval bases in Djibouti.

As Chinese power has grown, so have its interests, particularly in Africa and Djibouti’s strategic location is ideal to serve Beijing’s interests.

Djibouti is a small North African nation and a former French colony, sitting at the mouth of the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandeb, between the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The strait is critical for the passage of merchant and energy shipping. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA) figures, 3.8 million barrels of crude oil per day transit through the shipping lane. It also lies at the junction of three volatile areas — the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea) and North Africa (Egypt, Sudan).

Secondly, many analysts see China as the country that has the potential to replace the US as the most potent external power in Africa. Since the 1990s, Chinese military and police forces have become a key component of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. As of 2015, China had approximately 8,000 personnel in reserve to support the UN mission, making up a fifth of the total force. The majority of these activities are in Africa. Chinese workers have a substantial presence in Africa. China paid $200 million for the construction of the AU’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa.

In 2011, with the collapse of the Libyan regime of Muammar Gadhafi, China evacuated 35,000 of its nationals. China had to facilitate a smaller evacuation of around 400 people from Yemen when Saudi-led coalition forces launched airstrikes against the Houthi rebels inside Yemen in March 2015. Apart from their own, they evacuated nationals from many other countries earning their good will. This included Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

The establishment of the Chinese military base in Djibouti might not pose an immediate military threat to either the US or India, yet it serves as a major logistics hub to supply Chinese forces. The Chinese naval base would be a deterrent to pirate attacks in the crucial trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Finally, it is true that China is embroiled in a series of disputes in the South and East China seas. In Africa, however, China’s military presence might be salutary as it helps partially stabilise conflicts on the continent and reduces the burden on other states.

The establishment of the Chinese military base in Djibouti might not pose an immediate military threat to either the US or India, yet it serves as a major logistics hub to supply Chinese forces.

Even if one leaves aside the Djibouti development, which happened only recently, there are economic reasons for a possible China-US standoff in Africa. Though Africa has currently only ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves, it could potentially emerge as an important source of oil. West Africa has recently emerged as a vital source of oil due to new discoveries in the continent, especially in the Gulf of Guinea in the years between 2005 and 2010. According to the US Department of Energy (DoE), the combined oil output of all African producers is projected to increase by 91 per cent between 2002 and 2025 (8.6 to 16.4 million barrels per day).

Africa is the only region where oil production is expected to increase. Three of the world’s largest oil corporations (Shell, Total and Chevron) are targeting 15 per cent, 30 per cent and 35 per cent respectively of their global exploration and production budgets on Africa. On the other hand, it is estimated that Chinese energy consumption will increase by 1153 per cent between 2002 and 2025. African states, though rich in oil, however lack sufficient capital to exploit these resources leaving them dependent on external support. Oil could spur competition between China and the United States.

Yet limited forms of cooperation can crystallise between the two giants. In May 2013, there was a trilateral organised between representatives of the US, China and Africa. Thirty-seven individuals participated in the track two process. The process concluded that there was no inherent rivalry between China and the US. It was also concluded that in areas like agriculture, health, peace, and security, there were synergies for potential cooperation. The common threat of terrorism is another area where both the countries can cooperate. Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia are three major states in Africa that are most affected by terrorism. Thus, the African continent presents conditions for competition and cooperation between Washington and Beijing. The key test lies in how both states cooperate without allowing competition to overwhelm their interaction in Africa.

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Sameer Kumar

Sameer Kumar

Sameer Kumar Research Associate CEPT Research and Development Foundation (CRDF)

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