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Analysis: China’s new African pearls

Analysis: China’s new African pearls

4th January 2018 - 12:01 GMT | by ​Neil Thompson in London


A string of proposed new ports and railways in East Africa is feeding China’s appetite for a greater say in Indian Ocean maritime security arrangements, since China’s President Xi Jinping has made the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative his signature political project.

The maritime ‘road’ part of the initiative will link coastal Chinese cities in the country’s more prosperous east to a series of ports and railways in East Africa and ultimately the Mediterranean. These include a proposed $480 million deep-sea port at Lamu in Kenya, and a sister site at Mombasa.

There is also the question of how to secure this new infrastructure in some of the world’s most unstable states. Many observers believe China will be forced to expand its overseas military presence.

China opened a first overseas naval base operated by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Djibouti in August. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka the deep-sea port of Hambantota, which was opened in 2010, continues to worry India, which believes it could be used to host Chinese naval vessels. Those worries increased in July when the Sri Lankan government sold its 70% stake in the port to the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings for $1.1 billion.

Meanwhile, a proposed port under construction at Gwadar in Pakistan is another joint venture with Beijing that makes little economic sense at present, but which is strategically perched near the Persian Gulf and close to the Strait of Hormuz. Gwadar is a gateway to the Middle East and South/Central Asia and it is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

​USNS Fall River arrives in Hambantota to participate in the Pacific Partnership 2017 mission (Photo: US Navy)

The Maritime Silk Road will run from East Africa to Sri Lanka and thence to Southeast Asia, all watched over by Chinese naval assets based at Djibouti, and perhaps in the future at Gwadar, Hambantota and elsewhere along the way. This is a strategic vision disturbing to Indian, American and other Chinese-competitor states.

The arrival of the PLAN to patrol pirate-infested waters off places like Somalia is not entirely unappreciated, however. After all, businesses do not care who provides the security that lets their cargos arrive safely at their destination.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) does not take a political stance on the deployment of naval assets. 

An IMO spokesperson told Shephard:‘[The] IMO continues to express appreciation to those countries that have provided warships, government vessels, aircraft and personnel to suppress piracy and armed robbery against ships, and urges them to continue to do so.’

Global security analyst James Bridger, who previously worked as a maritime security consultant for Delex Systems, thinks China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is directly motivated by its expanding global footprint, and the way Beijing was previously caught out by such ‘black swan’ events as the Arab Spring and the upsurge in piracy off Somalia.

He added: ‘For China, one of the major benefits of its counter-piracy operations was to build its naval power projection, which culminated in the basing agreement with Djibouti, the PLAN’s first overseas base. This is a big deal for Beijing, as it is essentially only the second time in the country’s history that it has had an outwardly focused maritime strategy/policy.’

EUNAVFOR has long had a presence in Somalia combating piracy (Photo: EUNAVFOR)

Bridger continued: ‘China was caught on the back foot when it had to evacuate a large number of its citizens out of Libya and Yemen when conflicts erupted. They have got a much larger international stake these days in terms of people, assets and investments all over Africa and the Middle East, and the Djibouti base is key to being able to protect/evacuate them as needed.’

China may present itself as having legitimate reasons for a naval expansion into key waters in the Indian Ocean, but that does not reassure other nations who rely on a rules-based maritime order. India, for one, openly considers China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean a strategic challenge to its regional role, and other states have not been reassured by China’s increasing militarisation of the South China Sea in recent years.

As a result of growing Chinese potential, Western states like Australia, France and the US have been busy informally extending naval assistance to Delhi to enable it to stand up better to China’s deployment of warships, submarines and spy ships to the region.

While Indian foreign policy remains fluid and noncommittal, the building blocks of a multilateral naval alliance to counterbalance Beijing in the Indian Ocean are increasingly in place.

With India strengthening its naval cooperation with a number of foreign countries with the enthusiastic approval of the US, China is feeling prickly about the reaction of others to what it sees as its legitimate right to create a logistical support structure that can provide security to its expanding overseas trade empire.

Regarding Chinese naval strategy, James Holmes, Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College, commented: ‘In general terms, the PLA Navy has generally maintained a standing presence involving two surface combatants and a combat logistics ship in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. The counterpiracy mission has let the navy do some good in terms of policing the sea while also learning how to keep a fleet on station far from home for long stretches of time.’

While China operates its first naval base in Djibouti the US Navy maintains a strong presence there (Photo: US Navy)

Holmes continued: ‘The next big thing will be getting good at operating China’s first overseas naval base, namely the facility at Djibouti. In short, China has undertaken a patient, methodical effort to learn about how to operate ships and shore facilities in distant waters – giving the political leadership the option of ramping up its presence in the Indian Ocean region should it see the need.

‘Does this add up to a ‘string of pearls’, a fully-fledged base network in maritime South Asia? Not necessarily, but it does grant Beijing that option should the leadership see the need to exercise it.’

Concluding, Holmes said that submarine cruises have been more episodic and remain more peripheral to the larger Chinese efforts.

'If China starts operating nuclear subs in the region on a regular basis, or stationing conventional boats in the region, that will provide cause to re-evaluate its capability and intentions in the region. All of it bears watching as we track China’s progress and respond to it.’


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