China is expanding its military footprint in Africa

Ready for action.
Ready for action.
Image: EPA/Michael Reynolds
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China has announced it will host the inaugural China-Africa defense and security forum later this month, signaling its deepening engagement in Africa. Military officials say the summit will focus on regional security issues, financing and upgrading Africa’s security capacities, and improving defense cooperation.

The forum comes amid rising Sino-African political and economic relations, with growing diplomatic links, investments in much-needed infrastructure, and training of the next generation of African elites. China is striving to project itself as a responsible global power and to craft a positive image of itself on the world stage. This is especially true in Africa, where it has promoted “win-win” economic cooperation, mutual assistance in security matters, and solidarity in international affairs.

The defense cooperation could also be seen as China’s effort to secure its strategic interests abroad. This includes the One Belt One Road initiative, which calls for $1 trillion of investment in infrastructure and other projects along trade routes linking China to Europe, Russia, Central and Southeast Asia, and Africa.

One way China has fortified its investments in Africa is by gradually taking an active role at the United Nations, says Theodor Neethling, who heads the department of political studies at the University of Free State in South Africa. Over the last decade, China has ramped up its role in peacekeeping missions: Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it is the biggest contributor of peacekeepers, and it is among the world’s top 12 largest contributors of the troops. China has contributed troops to the UN missions in South Sudan, where it has oil interests, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies it with cobalt and copper, and Mali.

Providing logistical and defense support to African countries, Neethling says, is part of China’s plan of “projecting itself as the leader of the developing world and a nation that finds itself in solidarity with developing nations.” African countries can barely finance their own security agenda, and many nations face deficits when it comes to countering terrorism, piracy, and natural disasters. At a time when the US and European countries are adopting isolationist policies, Beijing is making power moves abroad, for example by opening up its first overseas military base in Djibouti.

This is causing some consternation for the United States. In Djibouti, where both nations operate bases, American generals are worried China might arm-twist Djibouti into kicking US forces out. Tensions, evocative of what’s happening in the South China Sea, are also escalating, with Americans recently accusing China of using military-grade lasers to distract its fighter pilots.

As China expands its global military might in Africa, some have worried that this might herald colonial ambitions or a new form of US-style military hegemony. Neethling argues that this shouldn’t be a concern: “China is certainly acutely aware of the pitfalls associated with the politics of interventionism and neo-colonialism,” he says, “especially in the developing world.”