A new Silk Road running between China and Africa promises a boost in trade for Beijing. Long focused on commercial activities, the Chinese government is now expanding its remit to bolster military relations and pursue subtler, soft-power strategies across the continent. But, as the U.S. retreats, what tools will Beijing use—and should the West be worried?
The Communist party wants to redefine its military engagement with countries across Africa and expand its power-projection capabilities. As part of this initiative, China invited top brass from 50 African nations last month to attend an inaugural “Defense and Security Forum”. From counter-piracy to counter-terrorism, China has vowed to provide these countries with “comprehensive support”, including equipment, personnel and tech.
One goal is to ensure the security of Chinese business interests in Africa, where President Xi Jinping’s government is entrenched as a crucial investor and trade partner. Between 2012 and 2016, China’s foreign investment in Africa more than doubled, from around $40 billion to $90 billion. Beijing has positioned the Suez Canal into its Belt and Road Initiative—President Xi’s multi-billion-dollar trade project building roads and railways to connect China with markets in Africa and Europe.
China’s military footprint is at its most visible in Djibouti, a small country with a strategic location in the Horn of Africa, allowing it to punch above its weight. There, the U.S. has its only permanent military base on the continent, stationing 4,000 soldiers at Camp Lemonnier—a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia. Last August, the Chinese military opened its first overseas base in the country, which overlooks the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. This development prompted concerns in Washington—and allegations that Chinese troops there were blinding U.S. Air Force pilots with lasers haven’t helped matters. There is talk of building a new massive dock there, which could accommodate Chinese destroyers and supply ships.
Djibouti has hosted numerous Chinese infrastructure projects, including the first electric transnational railway in Africa and plans for a $4-billion natural gas deal. Beijing watchers say China’s activities in Djibouti are a blend of commercial and military interests—a model that the Far Eastern powerhouse may replicate elsewhere. This next port of call could be a paradise archipelago off the continent’s western gulf. At the end of a recent trip to Africa, China’s Foreign Minister visited Sao Tome and Principe. This tiny island nation is tipped to be a strategic transport hub for Beijing, which has reportedly pledged tens of millions of dollars to revamp its international airport and construct a deep-sea container port.
Far away from this tropical oasis, the Chinese military has benefited from experiences gained in African conflict zones. During the Libyan civil war in 2011, China dispatched a warship to oversee the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese. A similar operation took place in Yemen in 2015 involving a Chinese frigate. Outside of these theatres, China has enjoyed growing arms exports with African clients, having signed off $3-billion worth of weapon deals to the continent. Since 2013, such exports have increased 55% compared to the previous five-year period. Beijing is behind more than a quarter of all arms exports to Sub-Saharan Africa and scatters its deliveries across a wider area than its American and Russian competitors.
But this comes at a price. There are regular reports of Chinese weapons ending up in the hands of combatants fighting in vicious conflicts—from the DRC to Somalia and Sudan—as well as in the armories of governments accused of human-rights violations. There’s another reason why China must be cautious about overly muscular activities; America’s post-9/11, increasingly-militarized relationship with Africa is, for some, an antagonistic presence that has dented ties (highlighted by protests against bases and deployments in Cameroon, Liberia, Niger and beyond).
But China’s ever-growing influence is not limited to hard power. Softer approaches draw on less tangible resources to further its interests. For example, Beijing gives money to African Union peacekeeping forces while its own soldiers swell the ranks of UN “blue helmets”. Out of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, China has become the biggest contributor of peacekeepers, most notably in Mali and South Sudan. This increased involvement reflects China’s desire for a more hands-on approach in foreign policy, helping Beijing enhance its image as a responsible great power in the developing world.
Beyond China’s participation in UN initiatives, the silver screen is an unlikely area of opportunity. China is funding movies to build influence and rival Hollywood’s global popularity, while Chinese conglomerates develop ties with U.S. movie moguls. In 2016, Wanda Group—a massive, Chinese cinema chain operator—acquired Legendary Pictures, a major American film studio.
In addition, China and Africa have established a shared film festival, while South Africa this month hosts the upcoming BRICS Film Festival, drawing talent from across emerging markets. Beijing is also awarding scholarships to film-makers in South Africa; China now beats the U.S. and EU as the primary destination for Anglophone-African students.
President Xi has encouraged Chinese media to promote positive stories and project China’s voice across the world stage. From China Global Television Network to English-language newspaper China Daily, Beijing-friendly outlets have expanded into Africa as part of the battle to win hearts and minds. China is also providing inexpensive TV service providers and telecommunications gear for greater mobile access.
The Chinese state hails its ‘Belt and Road’ hyper-project as a boon for trade and development. But critics warn of “debtbook diplomacy”. Eye-watering loans funding this ambitious project could create debt problems for countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. More lending means more leverage. If countries struggle with repayment, China could reap strategic assets and political sway as recompense, to the detriment of U.S. foreign policy.
Back in Djibouti—that unlikely geostrategic hotspot—the long-term proximity of U.S. and Chinese bases is unprecedented for the two powers. As Beijing flexes its muscles and prepares to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2030, expect more stand-offs to come.