With much fanfare, China has begun building a controversial military base in the minuscule East African country of Djibouti, in what is Beijing’s first permanent overseas military installation. While Chinese state media insists the facility is merely a “support facility” and not a base, the evidence so far points to the contrary. The outpost will store weapons, allow for maintenance on ships and helicopters, house Chinese marines or special forces, and will be used to support peace-keeping anti-piracy operations in the region – giving it all the characteristics of a proper military installation. Beijing’s expansion into Djibouti is a new phase in China’s evolution from an isolationist country to a military power with global reach.
One of the most striking aspects of the new installation is that it puts China in close and uncomfortable contact with many other powers already on site. Djibouti is host to the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa, while Japan and several European countries also have military facilities in the country. However, Chinese interests on the continent, as well as Djibouti’s strategic position at the mouth of the Suez Canal make this kind of expansion inevitable. The region’s waters are the passage for vital oil imports and other resources needed to sustain China’s growth and development. What’s more, since China has invested billions of dollars throughout Africa and has over a million nationals working on the continent, a base in neighboring Djibouti is a good way to protect those assets.
Be that as it may, and notwithstanding the benefits Chinese investment have brought African nations, there is a far darker side to the whole situation. There is ample evidence that China’s presence in Africa is a boon for authoritarian local leaders, who get lucrative trade relationship without strings attached. While Western countries impose conditions on aid regarding improvements in democracy, governance, human rights and poverty reduction, China does not. It abides by a policy of non-interference, allowing African regimes to spend the money as they please. This is great news for Africa’s elites and dictators, but not for the continent’s citizens.
Chinese aid gives African governments greater resources with which to strengthen their grip on power and repress political opponents. Consequently, research shows that there is a direct link between increases in Chinese aid lead to more political violence. Just look at Djibouti, where president Ismail Omar Guelleh won a controversial fourth term earlier this year with the help of Chinese patronage. In the run-up to the election, Guelleh’s governmental forces killed up to 19 people including a six year old girl for the crime of participating in a religious gathering. With the regime on the receiving end of billions in investment and aid from China, the autocratic Guelleh has hardened his stance, in spite of repeated criticism from the U.S. and other leading human rights organizations.
In other instances, China directly fuels repression by selling military hardware to oppressive governments, thereby stoking conflict across the continent. China sold fighter jets and military vehicles to Zimbabwe, despite an arms embargo from the U.S. and E.U. It has sold arms to Nigeria that were used to fight militants in the Niger river delta. Its arms sales to Sudan were used in its conflict against the south Sudanese. It sold arms to both Eritrea and Ethiopia during a war between the two countries.
Even worse, the detrimental effects of unconditional Chinese aid have global implications. African countries that vote with China at the UN – including against human rights measures – tend to receive more Chinese aid. For example, a UN resolution condemning North Korean human rights abuses was voted against by 19 countries, while another 48 abstained. These include African recipients of Chinese aid such Zimbabwe and Burundi, which voted against the measure, as well as Mozambique and Ethiopia, which abstained. Such consequences are a worrying harbinger of what is to come as China gradually expands its reach in Africa and elsewhere.
Reliance on trade and aid from China brings yet another vulnerability for African countries. Africa’s strong economic growth in recent years was driven by Chinese grow and China’s demand for natural resources. Now that China’s growth is slowing, so is its demand for resources, leading to a sharp drop in commodity prices, reduced Sino-African trade and a decrease in Chinese investment. In 2015, African exports to China fell 38 percent from the previous year. The economic slowdown has put strain on many African economies, especially in resource-dependent countries like Angola.
Ultimately, Chinese investment in Africa does not necessitate empowering oppressive regimes at the expense of human rights and good governance. China’s Djibouti base will give it hard power in the vicinity for when Chinese companies and nationals face threats, but those military capabilities must be accompanied by a dedication to better governance that keeps African markets from imploding (like Sudan) or from descending into chaos (like Djibouti). By pushing its African partners toward better behavior, China can be a positive force on the continent and save itself from problems down the road. It is yet to be seen which path China will choose in the long run. But its past behavior does not portend well.
*David Meijer is a senior security analyst based in Amsterdam specialized in trans-national contraband.