Why China is increasing its military presence in Africa

By Nyshka Chandran, Reporter, CNBC Asia-Pacific

For decades, China’s presence in Africa has largely focused on economic, commercial and peacekeeping activities. Now, Beijing is building on that by establishing greater military links to protect its national assets on the continent and gain greater geopolitical influence.

The People’s Liberation Army conducts regular joint training exercises across the region and, in certain countries that are home to major Chinese infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road initiative, the communist state has been especially active.

In Djibouti, where Chinese companies have constructed strategic ports and Africa’s first electric transnational railway, Beijing last year formally launched its first overseas military base, which also operates as a logistics and intelligence facility. Many experts now anticipate more Chinese bases in the years to come, with Namibia rumored as a potential location.

Meanwhile in Tanzania, where the state-run conglomerate China Merchants Holdings International is hoping to invest in the Bagamoyo mega port, China built a complex designed to train local armed forces earlier this year. And, at the first-ever China-Africa Defense and Security Forum in Beijing on Tuesday, the communist state announced it will provide African countries with “comprehensive support” on matters such as piracy and counter-terrorism. That includes providing technologies, equipment, personnel and strategic advice, local media reported.

All that comes amid expectations for the U.S. to reduce troops in Africa under President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which is set to boost Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government as the dominant foreign power on the continent.

The strengthened defense ties compliment China’s existing ventures, particularly weapons sales, according to specialists.

“In recent years, Chinese arms sales to Africa have surpassed the United States,” said Luke Patey, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies: “In particular, Chinese small arms and light weapons have spread rapidly since China is less inhibited by selling arms to countries in the midst of conflict than Western providers.” That goes hand in hand with Beijing’s expanding military cooperation, he continued.

A desire to safeguard Chinese workers and Chinese-funded projects on the continent is likely behind the government’s efforts.

“China’s security concerns are actually aimed at its own nationals, and military diplomacy is skillfully used to protect them and their interests,” the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, or Clingendael, said in a recent report.

“The evacuation of hundreds of Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015 — on a People’s Liberation Army frigate that sailed from the coasts of Somalia — proves just how crucial the presence of a military logistics base on the eastern coast of Africa is for China,” it continued.

The world’s second-largest economy has long described Sino-Africa cooperation as a “win-win” arrangement — one that provides China with natural resources and African economies with badly-needed infrastructure. But while the flood of Chinese resources may be welcomed by the region’s cash-strapped governments, the fear is that increased capital could translate into political leverage.

In fact, many speculate that it was Beijing’s concerns over its investments that resulted in the 2017 coup that ousted Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe — a charge that Xi’s administration has denied.

“The concern from a lot of partners is exactly what role China is going to be playing in the region and how it’s going to fit with existing military organizations and security forums,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, Asia regional director at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “It’s really an unsettling element of something new coming into the equation that’s got a lot of people concerned.”

“African countries should be clear-eyed that the days of China’s strict adherence to its longstanding noninterference policy are over,” Patey added.

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