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29 June 2016

If China isn’t colonizing Africa, then why is it building a military base there?

China starts work on Horn of Africa military base in Djibouti, defence ministry confirms (SMCP.com)

China starts work on Horn of Africa military base in Djibouti, defence ministry confirms (SMCP.com)

Dear Eric & Cobus, I’ve been a longtime listener of your podcast where I’ve heard you say over and over again that China isn’t colonizing Africa, but I don’t believe it. They’re doing exactly what the British and French did. The Chinese are extracting Africa’s natural resources and now their military is being sent there to protect those investments. They are actually building a base in Djibouti! Come on guys, open your eyes! If this isn’t colonialism then what is it?

– John from Fairfax, Virginia via Faceboo

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Dear John,

Yes, the Chinese are extracting lots of natural resources from Africa. Yes, the Chinese now have more troops in Africa (about 3,000) than ever before. That too is well documented. And yes, the Chinese are indeed building a naval outpost in Djibouti. So in that sense, you’re totally correct.

The problem comes when you try to link those facts together to prove that China is a colonial power in Africa. That’s where it all breaks down.

Let’s get the natural resources issue out of the way first.

To compare what the Chinese are doing today in Africa with the brutality, violence and moral horrors committed by the European colonialists makes me think you don’t fully understand the injury committed by the French, Belgians and British and others upon Africa.

China’s behavior in Africa is not perfect by any measure. There are problems. Lots of problems. But despite their shortcomings, the Chinese are not actually stealing any of Africa’s lands or natural resources as the Europeans did. Instead, the Chinese are using the tools of 21st century capitalism to buy the oil, minerals and other resources it needs from Africa. The terms of these deals may be bad, even unfair, but it is not theft and certainly not colonialism.

Your connection of China’s resource agenda with its military strategy highlights two common flaws in Western thinking about the Chinese in Africa:

Misconception #1: The Chinese are mimicking Western imperialism. The Chinese don’t have to build an army to conquer vast lands to secure the natural resources that feed their factories and the energy to power their economy. Why would they do that when they can just buy it on the open market for a fraction of the price? After all, globalized markets in the 21st century are far more efficient in securing resources than the imperialist system of the 18th century! Right?

Misconception #2: OK, if that’s the case, then what are all those soldiers doing in Africa?  The Chinese have somewhere around 3,000 military personnel deployed in 9 or 10 countries, but very few of them are actually combat troops.  Most are are engineering, medical and other support staff. In fact, combat-ready soldiers are only in two countries, South Sudan and Mali. None of these troops – combat and non-combat – are there to fight for the Chinese government as they are all under UN command. Hardly a colonial invasion force!

So what about that base in Djibouti?

Yes, the Chinese are building a naval military facility in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, that also happens to house bases from the United States, France and Japan. It’s possible that this small base could indeed be used for offensive combat operations. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely.

Unlike the US, and even the French, the Chinese lack the necessary supply networks to maintain a base like that for combat operations, especially since it’s so far from home. So one tiny base by itself would be largely useless as a base of operations.

Instead, most experts believe this base will be used to re-supply PLA Navy ships engaged in multinational anti-piracy operations in Gulf of Aden and other UN missions in the region (e.g. South Sudan). Also, a base in Djibouti can support Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese shipping lanes. Finally, as China engages in more humanitarian missions in Africa (Ebola, Mali, South Sudan, etc…) Djibouti is strategically located to service both the Sahel and Sub-Sahara Africa.

Even if the Chinese wanted to mount the kind of militaristic imperial agenda that you and so many other Westerners suggest, there’s no way the Chinese could pull it off. So your question reveals more about Western insecurities of losing power and influence than it does about China’s actual capabilities and agenda in Africa.

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