China Taking Over Africa through Military Diplomacy



With the world’s largest population and over 8 per cent of GDP economic boom, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to engage in realpolitik in the second largest resource rich continent i.e. Africa. With its “no strings attached” aid diplomacy to the African nations, China now strategies on building a closer military ties with them.

With its military diplomacy, China wants to achieve its ultimate strategic goal of emerging as the Great Power in a unipolar world dominated and still largely dictated by the US. China rightly thinks that having close military ties along with closer economic relations with major African nations will help it in realizing its long cherished goal. Beijing’s military diplomacy in its larger African policy formulations is to achieve twin objectives of economic (access to huge untapped resources) and political (recognition of “One China” policy in de-legitimizing Taiwan, its “renegade province”) in the long run.

II. China’s Military Diplomacy in New Scramble for Africa

A few decades ago, China’s influence in Africa was limited. Its aid programs were hardly significant, its diplomats relatively unskilled. In most international forums, China did little other than defend core interests, like the “one China” principle. Recently, however, continued strong economic growth, a more sophisticated generation of Chinese leaders, better scholarship in China on Africa, and a domestic population more confident in China as a global actor have encouraged Beijing to take a more proactive approach to foreign affairs.

In recent years, Beijing has identified the African continent as an area of significant economic and strategic interest. Currently, China’s somewhat cavalier stance toward arms sales and its disregard for norms surrounding democracy and human rights is troubling. There is a very real danger that Beijing’s supposed “non-political” stance merely masks its bottom line: the chase for profits and oil. Finally, Beijing increasingly views Africa as a center for military-military cooperation and a market for China’s growing arms industry. In particular, China has developed close military ties with Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Ethiopia, three of Africa’s most strategically important states.

III. Beginning of Beijing’s Strategic Engagement with Africa

China’s involvement in Africa can be classified into four distinct phases:

First Phase (1960-65): This is a phase coinciding with two important events viz. the gradual decolonization in Africa with more and more newly independent states emerging in the continent that has been colonized and exploited with no bounds the western imperialist powers as dictated by their self-serving agenda chalked out at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and the rise of Sino-Soviet ideological rivalry and border skirmishes.

Second Phase (1965-70): This phase saw China’s withdrawal from African affairs as it got engaged with more important domestic agenda of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a mammoth uphill task of nation-building.

Third Phase (1970 -1990): After 1970’s onwards China started with serious engagement with the important countries of the African continent. It could foresaw the continental resource rich Africa in meeting its growing appetite for energy (oil and gas) as China’s economy stated growing out rapidly under the “open-door” policy of Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s famous statement supporting this u-turn in Communist China’s economic policy was “it does not matter whether the cat is red or black as long as it catches mice”—a cryptic blunt reply.

Fourth Phase (1990 onwards till today) : Communist China’s policy towards Africa in the 1990s has its roots in the crisis surrounding the Tiananmen Square crackdown on 4 June 1989, and the heavy and persistent criticism by the developed world leveled against Beijing’s human rights record since that date. Previous to this, the importance of the African continent to China had become less and less important in the 1980s, as the Cold War underwent a thawing process and China’s modernization project demanded foreign investment and technological assistance.

IV. Logic behind China’s New Military Diplomacy towards Africa

In the 1990s as the demand for energy also multiplied and Beijing was desperately looking towards cheap oil and gas to fuel its economic growth and zeroed it on the resource rich Africa’s untapped cheap energy potentials. China’s logic is simple – The vast number of Third World African nations will surely unite with and stand behind China like numerous “ants” keeping the “elephant” (i.e. China) from harm’s way.

Since early 2004, attention has been paid to the PRC’s involvement in Africa. While some analysts have focused narrowly on PRC interests in raw materials (hydrocarbons, in particular), others have recognized Beijing’s broader interests on the continent.

Behind Beijing’s operations of political warfare across the African continent there is a hidden cherished goal of Communist China – the dream of becoming a Great Power on the world stage.

In 2005, Beijing released its first official government paper on its policy toward Africa. China knew it very well that only by giving its best foot forward in resource rich Africa; it can realize its long cherished goal. With this view in mind, the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) was launched in the year 2000 to accelerate the processes of this relationship in the 21st century. The FOCAC also boosted the other side’s long cherished idea of an African Renaissance. China’s highly self-interest based helping hand, which the African States are made to believe as more or less altruistic, lifted their fear of marginalization in the ever intensifying universal trend of globalization. This “helping hand” of PRC China was behind the African nation’s grand plan for African development i.e. the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), unveiled at the African Union (formerly OAU) Summit in 2002. Close to this, in January , 2006 China unveiled her first ever African Policy Paper (APP), wherein China pledged to work in tandem with the African states towards a new type of strategic partnership based on such noble principles as political equality, mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchange program. In the same year by playing host to 48 out of 53 African States in the First Africa Summit. China showcased its predominant influence over the African continent.

V. China’s Military Diplomacy with Africa: Possible Spin-offs for Beijing

Now, more than any time earlier, it is Beijing who calls the shots in Africa. The all powerful USA has been replaced to second rung in many countries of the Africa continent; which must be seen as China’s long nourished diplomatic victory. Indeed, it is a victory of its long drawn Africa Strategy. If it continues this way without any intervention, very soon the mighty USA will surely lose its foothold in Africa. The US decision to build a dedicated US Africa Command (US-AFRICOM) in March, 2008 should, therefore, be seen in the line of US’s new found “Containment of China in Africa” policy. But it will be a difficult task to lessen China’s pro-Africa image that it has steadfastly built in Africa since 1955 onwards. It will be even more a difficult job to clip the wings of its military diplomacy with China’s PLA building strong fortress almost throughout the continent.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is deeply engaged in countries like Sudan, Angola, Algeria, Nigeria, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Seychelles islands etc. in conducting low-key joint military training, training military personnel of these countries, supplying small arms, petrol boats, high speed naval attack vessels and so on. PLA also fulfils its military objectives by participating in the UN Peacekeeping Operations and through non-traditional missions such as combating terrorism, small arms smuggling, drug trafficking and transnational economic crimes.

As of end of 2012, approximately 1,200 PLA soldiers including peacekeeping forces, to more than 5,000 soldiers are stationed in Africa. Beijing’s military to military contracts extend through the continent reaching at least 43 countries to provide robust military relations from which to shape its future in Africa.

Chinese Embassy defense attaché offices throughout Africa provide the diplomatic foundation for China’s military contacts. At least 14 of the 107 Chinese military attaché offices worldwide are in African countries. Collectively, these offices hold at least 30 accredited military offices, in addition to support personnel. Today, Chinese firms rank among the top suppliers of conventional arms in Africa. Between 1996 and 2003, Chinese arms sales to Africa were second only to Russia’s.

A second point to emphasize when looking at how China’s military diplomacy fits into its foreign policy is that when it comes to conducting foreign military relations, the PLA is not an independent actor. There is a large body of data that indicates that the PLA has to coordinate with the Party-State bureaucracy, depending on the type of bilateral military initiative contemplated, and with which country it is to take place.

As a clear sign of this attitude, China prefers to put all international norms aside in pursuing military aid to countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe- countries considered as international pariah. Although China is not alone in placing its national interests and growing demand for resources above the interests of African nations, China’s modern self identity as a leader of the developing world moralistically insists it could never exploit weaker states. In fact, China, that enjoys both as Great Power and Developing Nation status, has been seen as an alternative to the US and the EU- commonly viewed as imperialist hegemonic powers.

African dictatorships are regular buyers of Chinese weapons and military equipment, which they often use to oppress minority populations, quash political opposition, harass neighboring countries, and extinguish any glimmers of democratization. In 2004, despite the U.S. and EU arms embargo against Zimbabwe, China sold Zimbabwe fighter aircraft and military vehicles for $200 million.

VI. China’s Arms Sale to African Nations and its Covert WMD Proliferations

Between 1955 and 1977, Le Monde reports, China sold $142 million worth of military equipment to Africa, and the pace of sales has picked up significantly since then. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) 2010 reports China’s arms sales to some African nations made up 10 percent of all conventional arms transfers to the continent between 1996 and 2008. They include:

Sudan: China has sold the Islamic government in Khartoum weapons and $100 million worth of Shenyang fighter planes, including twelve supersonic F-7 jets, according to the aerospace industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology. Experts say any military air presence excised by the government – including the helicopter gunships reportedly used to terrorize civilians in Darfur – comes from China.

Equatorial Guinea: China has provided military training and Chinese specialists in heavy military equipment to the leaders of the tiny West African nation, whose oil reserves per capita approach may exceed those of Saudi Arabia.

Ethiopia and Eritrea: China has sold Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea, an estimated $1 billion worth of weapons before and during their border war from 1998 and 2000.

Brundi: In 1995, a Chinese ship carrying 152 tons of ammunition and light weapons meant for the army of Burundi was refused permission to dock in Tanzania.

Zimbabwe: The autocratic government of Robert Mugabe ordered 12 FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles from China in late 2004 in a deal worth $200 million, experts say. In May, 2000, China reportedly swapped a shipment of small arms for eight tons of Zimbabwean elephant ivory. In addition, the US-backed International Broadcast Bureau says China provided a radio jamming device to Zimbabwe that allows Mugabe regime to block broadcasts of independent news source s like Radio Africa from a military base outside Harare. China also donated the blue tiles that decorated the roof of Mugabe’s house.

Algeria: In February 1983, the PRC and Algeria signed a secret nuclear cooperation agreement leading to the construction of the SALAM nuclear “research” reactor intended for plutonium production. Years later, the Chinese pres acknowledge that “China trained Algerian scientists and technicians and provided technology and a complete set of facilities for the reactor”. This “research” reactor went critical in December 1993.

Egypt: According to responsible sources, China is “among a number of Asian and European countries that have established ties with Egypt to help it construct “a number of nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes.” The Algerian and Egyptians reactors fit a large pattern of serving as a conduit for technology associated with nuclear weapons programs.

Nigeria: In October, 2005, it was reported that Beijing donated $3 million worth of military equipment to oil rich Nigeria. The equipment included “two special vehicles, emergency runway system, bullet proof helmets and vests, communication gadgets, computers, uniform and driving devices”. The Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria said that experts from China will visit Nigeria very soon to train its soldiers how to sue those equipments.”

Angola: It now emerged as China’s largest oil supplier, meeting 25% of China’s global oil requirement. China used age old custom of greasing the palms of the corrupt regime of Luanda with huge arms and financial aids. Arms supply consists of mostly light arms a lion’s share of which is Chinese pirated version of cheap AK-47 rifles.

All these data may be just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of vital information and volume of arms sale have been shrewdly wrapped under its Communist “Bamboo Curtain or Great Firewall”. It is worth mentionable here that China is not a member of various world statistical bodies and does not subscribed to the standard international statistical rules. It does not subscribe to various UN arms control bodies and conventions, citing its national security interests.

VII. Critical Evaluation and Conclusion
In recent years, Beijing has identified the African continent as an area of significant economic and strategic interest. America and its allies and friends are finding that their vision of a prosperous Africa governed by democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law and that embrace free markets is being challenged by the escalating Chinese influence in Africa. China is becoming good friends to many African nations, as the US has been. Between 2002 and 2010, China-Africa trade jumped 50 percent, to $180 billion. It’s expected to grow to $300 billion before 2020.

China is increasingly making its presence felt on the continent – from building roads in Kenya and Rwanda to increasing trade with Uganda and South Africa. But critics say its involvement in politics could help prop up questionable regimes, like Mr. Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic reign.

If current trends continue, China will become a major player in Africa and one that may both challenge traditional Western interests and offer an alternative reading of democracy and human rights that may not benefit the average Africans.

Unmoved by ideological concerns and without fear of political consequences, the Chinese government seems willing to deliver arms to and conduct business with African despots. Curiously, Beijing does not seem to realize that political instability, a lack of accountability and a continent awash with arms sabotages the long-term possibilities of a sustained Sino-African partnership.

For such reasons, both India and the international community need to closely watch China’s rapid expansion into the African continent via its militarization of energy politics or its military diplomacy.

Written by Sourabh Jyoti Sharma >>

Sourabh is a pursuing PhD research scholar working on ‘Chinese Navy in Indian Ocean and Strategic Implications for India”, at Department of Political Science, Delhi University.

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Indian Exponent: China Taking Over Africa through Military Diplomacy
China Taking Over Africa through Military Diplomacy
Indian Exponent
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