China’s Role in East Africa

The purpose of this short essay is to take a critical glance at the stance and strategy China and the United States is currently undertaking in East Africa. China is undertaking a grand strategy in Africa to incentivize economic and political cooperation and development of the developing nations throughout the continent. Using its newly acquired political and economic prosperity to drive its international agenda, China seeks to insert its own influence on developing nations and bring them into Chinese orbit. The United States on the other hand is in a holding pattern in the region, not willing to fully commit but afraid to leave for fear of Chinese takeover. 

As China has gained in economic and political influence and clout they have started to look abroad for their own ambitions. In East Africa, China has found a region ripe for development and investment. East Africa presents a unique opportunity, not only to China but to any other great power because as they say in Real Estate, location, location, location. What makes its location so valuable is influenced by several factors. Access to the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, access to untapped natural resources, and countries in need of development investment. While these factors offer a tempting reason for any nation to be economically and politically involved with this region, the fighting and instability would force any nation to reconcile with whether investment is too risky. 

Surely the United States should have a coherent strategy in place for how to engage and invest in this part of the world? While China continues to challenge the United States influence the United States has struggled to develop a counter strategy to the encroachment of Chinese influence, even in regions where the United States has an active presence such as in East Africa. It is imperative that the United States develop ways to counter act or offer a substitute for flagship Chinese strategies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, before ceding too much ground to the Chinese.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a Chinese development and investment initiative which seeks to expand Chinese influence across the world in the economic, political, and development sphere. About 65 countries around the world, accounting for 30% of the worlds GDP and touching 75% of the world’s energy reserves, have signed on to be a part of this program. It spans from Asia to Europe and into Africa. One country which has signed up and has major security implications not only for Africa but for the United States, is Djibouti. What makes Djibouti unique is its location. It is located in the Horn of Africa along the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, and it is a politically stable state in a notoriously unstable region. The straight is geopolitically important because approximately 20,000 ships and 30% of the worlds trade travel through that straight annually. The straight is connected to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, making it an essential artery in the lifeblood of world trade. Controlling the straight means control of the trade, of which China and the United States both have interests in. 

Chinas investments into Djibouti have revolved around the straight and gaining access to the port. China has invested in the Djiboutian port infrastructure and has been rewarded with military partnerships and land within Djibouti to forward deploy Chinese troops and ships. The port investments have led to China forward deploying some of their fleet to Djibouti where their navy is able to come to port and conduct policing operation in a highly strategic, and pirated, sea lane. China has been able to not only secure sea lanes for trade but have also been able to gain a geostrategic location from which to base military forces. 

While China reaps massive benefits from their investments in Djibouti, Djibouti does not have the same benefits. Djibouti has become deeply indebted to China, owing up to 75% of their national GDP to China. Owing so much to China allows the Chinese government to have a significant influence over the Djiboutian government, especially in regard to the port. China has used this strategy before, of lending debts they know cannot be repaid, by striking a deal to swap their debt with an equity. In Sri Lanka, the port of Hambontata was swapped to be controlled by the Chinese because of the debt owed by the Sri Lankan government to Chinese in exchange for the investments they could not pay off. The fear in Djibouti is that they will not be able to pay off their massive debts and will cede control of the port to China in exchange. This move would affect more than just Djibouti, it would affect the countries who have a military presence in the port as well such as the United States and France. 

In their aggressive stance towards economic and political expansion, China has forced competing nations, such as the United States, either unable to come up with a viable alternative or to hold failing strategies in hopes of prevent China from entering places where the United States already has a sizable presence. In neighboring Somalia, which is infamous for being a haven of piracy, Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) and lack of a stable national government, the United States continues to have an ongoing presence to try and bring peace and stability back to this country. The United States maintains both a military and diplomatic presence in Somalia to work with the partner forces and bring about stability but do so without fully committing to either strategy. The military does not want to take the risk of full operations there, while the State Department does not help fund enough of the development which is desperately needed in Somalia. Without a full commitment in either direction the United States has been held in a holding pattern, not wanting to leave for fears of China stepping in as soon as the United States withdraws, as recently witnessed in Afghanistan. Bringing stability to Somalia is crucial for stability in the region and has further implications for U.S. influence in the region.  

As seen with other developing countries who sign onto the BRI, they want infrastructure and capital for development, which China is quite willing to give no matter who is in control. This has been recently shown when China announced they would be willing to invest in Afghanistan, even if the Taliban comes back to power. By pushing in such an aggressive way as soon as the United States decided to pull out, China has shown that they are willing to vacate any vacuum of influence that the United States will give up. An effect of this aggressive stance is to cause the United States to hold current positions, even if they are costly or untenable, to deny it to the Chinese. As in chess, where pinning an opponent’s piece so you can maneuver your own pieces is crucial, the pieces of the United States are being pinned or outmaneuvered by the Chinese on the geopolitical chessboard. 

If the United States wants to maintain hegemonic control, they must offer an alternative to the BRI, or come up with another viable strategy to counteract current Chinese maneuvering. One of the first steps should be to come up with a comprehensive strategy to U.S. commitments and objectives overseas. Too often the U.S. careens from crisis to crisis that develops abroad and has fallen into a pattern of reaction instead of being proactive. Instead of preventing instability or pushing forward an American forward-thinking strategy, too often the U.S. is reacting to events as they unfold and then piecing together how it effects American interests. The U.S. needs to develop a proactive strategy to how they will bring prosperity to the world, and actively needs to engage with partner nations to ensure it happens. Secondly, the U.S. needs to come up with their own development and trade initiative to be able to present to the developing world. The BRI has shown the economic and development benefits for both China and the recipient nations. Currently, China receives greater trade ties with approximately 75% of the world’s nations, and that figure is growing.  The U.S. needs to increase our trade ties with nations abroad, to not only help portions of the world develop, but to bring economic benefits back to the U.S. Developing an alternative trade and development initiative would help to drive U.S. influence into developing nations and reap economic benefits for the U.S.

The steps outlined above can be applied in a contested region such as in East Africa and be used as a model moving forward on the effectiveness of American resolve. The region would make a good model because of its current instability, geostrategic location, and the opportunity for development and economic expansion. The first step would be to implement a proactive strategy in the region to stabilize. This would include a serious military commitment to train and equip partner nations, but also a willingness to accept greater risk willingness to accept greater risk to American military personal. As American military “Boots on the ground” would work hand in hand with partner nation forces. Military operations would go hand in hand with the second layer which would be economic and infrastructure development. By bringing development and economic activity to areas recently reacquired by government forces it undercuts any incentives to being controlled, or sympathetic, to VEOs and chaotic actors. In Somalia this would take the form of training the Somali National Army (SNA) forces to take back territory controlled by al-Shabaab (AS), but then following it up with development and economic expansion in that area to further deter AS from taking root again.

The Chinese currently have an advantage over the U.S., and that is that China has been pursuing very proactive strategies abroad while the U.S. has been very reactive. If the U.S. wants to maintain its hegemony and not cede power and influence to China, then it must change tactics and become more proactive in its strategies. East Africa would be an excellent place to start and show American resolve because of the myriad of challenges which present themselves there. 

References:

Nantulya, Paul, Implications for Africa from China’s One Belt One Road Strategy (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2019).

Bereketeab, Redie. “Djibouti: Strategic Location, an Asset or a Curse?” Journal of African Foreign Affairs 3, no. 1/2 (2016): 5-18. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26661713.

 “Port Strategy: BRI: FINANCE OR DEBT TRAP?” Port Strategy. Insight for marine technology professionals, November 19, 2020. https://www.portstrategy.com/news101/world/africa/bri-finance-or-debt-trap. 

Times, Global. “GT Voice: China Could Constructively Facilitate Afghanistan’s Economic Reconstruction.” Global Times, July 29, 2021. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1230032.shtml. 

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