China military cements its presence in Africa

Saturday July 15 2017

J-15 fighter jets on the flight deck of China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it arrived in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017. PHOTO | AFP

By Allan Olingo

China has sent soldiers to its first overseas military base in Africa, cementing Beijing’s growing clout on the continent.

On Wednesday, two warships set sail with personnel to complete setting up of the facility in Djibouti. The base, coupled with the country’s economic interests, now firmly places it at the centre of Africa’s growth and security.

The base will also be used for joint training and exercises to improve China’s position in the global arms race, which has seen many of the continent’s militaries use Chinese manufactured weapons.

China will now join the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar as countries maintaining a military presence at the Horn of Africa.

Beijing says the base will bolster China’s performance of missions such as ship security escorts, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa.

China’s navy commander Shen Jinlong said the establishment of the base was agreed to after negotiations by the two countries and were in accord with the common interest of their citizens.


“The Djibouti base will also be conducive to military co-operation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting Chinese citizens working overseas, emergency rescue missions, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways,” Commander Jinlong said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that the base would enable China to make new and greater contributions to peace in Africa and the world and would benefit Djibouti’s development.

“Other military bases station troops and conduct military training in contrast with the specialised function of logistical support that the Chinese base will have,” Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association told the state-run Global Times.

Washington’s reaction

China began construction of a logistics base in Djibouti in 2016, saying that it would use it as a resupply point for its navy vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia.

READ: China to start work soon on naval base in Djibouti

However, observers see this base as the beginning of Beijing’s military development and foray into Africa. Beijing’s official communication and the military both offered different accounts on what status this facility will hold.

The People’s Liberation Army saw its daily paper reinforce what its naval chief said adding that China would not be seeking military expansionism or to get into an arms race in the region.

“This facility will increase China’s ability to ensure global peace, especially because it has so many UN peacekeepers in Africa and was also involved in anti-piracy patrols,” the military paper said.

However, Global Times, in its editorial, laid bare what the facility would be, underpinning that it would in fact be a military base.

Djibouti also hosts American, Japanese and French bases. It will be interesting to see Washington’s reaction to this development, as it will be located close to its Camp Lemonnier, which hosts at least 4,000 military personnel.

For the regional powerplay, it is Djibouti’s rising profile that will be watched closely as it becomes a host to the globe’s military powers.

On the other hand, it is enjoying billions of dollars in infrastructure support that has seen it open new ports and projects, strengthening its position as a gateway to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

READ: China most important African trade partner

African defence market

Security analysts say the African defence market is now important to China, as it accounted for close to a quarter of its global military exports in the past five years.

But more importantly is how this new base will advance Chinese military interest in the East Africa and beyond, and how it will impact its growing arms business with countries in the region.

In the last decade, China has been key in its defence powerplay in the continent, which has seen its arms exports to Africa rise. Currently, up to two-thirds of militaries on the continent use Beijing’s military equipment, including infantry vehicles, combat aircraft, naval ships, small arms and ammunition, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows.

According to the SIPRI data, China’s share of the military imports by sub-Saharan countries doubled to 26 per cent last year, from 12.1 per cent ten years ago. It has since become the second largest arms supplier to the continent, behind US, followed by Russia. France and Germany also have sizable market shares.

Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan are some of Beijing’s biggest arms markets.

Security analysts say the African defence market is now important to China, as it accounted for close to a quarter of its global military exports in the last five years.

“Close to two-thirds of African militaries operate Chinese military equipment with close to a dozen new players emerging to expand this market. Their equipment are becoming more sophisticated and they can also deliver at lower prices and far quicker than other suppliers,” Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst at the Military Balance, a global defence think-tank said.

ALSO READ: Yemen war shifts focus to Somalia