For over three decades, every Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas trip of the year has been to Africa. This year continued the tradition with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, visiting Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Côte d'Ivoire. Notably, every one of these countries is coastal. And yet, at a time of continued speculation over China’s next military installation in Africa, none of these countries has featured prominently as potential locations in previous analyses. We might, therefore, reasonably ask what China’s current considerations are around basing in Africa. Faced with an increasingly multipolar and assertive Africa at a time of domestic economic challenge, however, China’s long-term strategy remains unclear.

China National Offshore Oil Corporation began drilling at the Kingfisher oil field, located on the shore of Lake Albert in western Uganda, in late January 2023. (Arlette Bashizi/The New York Times)
China National Offshore Oil Corporation began drilling at the Kingfisher oil field, located on the shore of Lake Albert in western Uganda, in late January 2023. (Arlette Bashizi/The New York Times)

China’s Base in Djibouti

China has one base on the African continent which opened in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017. The overt goals of this installation are anti-piracy and freedom of navigation, part of a strategy aimed at securing trade corridors alongside developing alternatives such as the longer but less-contested Mozambique-South Africa route.

Houthi militants’ current attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and a renewed attack by pirates on shipping in the waters off Somalia have once again validated the strategic value of Djibouti and ensuring adjacent sea lines of communication such as the Bab al Mandab Strait remain navigable. Furthermore, in the 2011 Libya crisis, China had to protect some 35,000 citizens with very few resources on the ground; a failing that ostensibly justified an African base.

However, Djibouti is also an exceptional case in terms of the number of foreign bases that it hosts, and its strategic geographic value to so many international partners. Indeed, Japan and Saudi Arabia also have bases there and nowhere else on the continent. In many respects, China’s Djibouti base tells us little about China’s strategic considerations over expanding its military footprint in the region.

A Growing Liability

The fact is military bases can be a liability for their foreign governments in times of crisis. In Niger, the U.S. military is struggling to carve out the diplomatic space necessary to keep Air Base 201 running; one of the U.S. military’s biggest investments in the continent that has been hamstrung by the coup last year. The U.S. military is now exploring other points of presence in West Africa, but with little success so far.  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to coastal West Africa may well have touched on this issue as he met with leaders in Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Angola earlier this month.

The British, meanwhile, had to go through tough negotiations in 2021 with Kenya to extend their training base lease as French bases have been closing across the Sahel and United Nations missions have been dismantled. Similarly, India’s failed attempts to open a military facility in the Seychelles are illustrative of the direction of travel across the African continent.

Historically, hosting military bases has generated political capital for African governments, with varying degrees of success in boosting economic activity. Engagement with great powers has been important for domestic legitimacy and regime survival but has not shown consistent results in benefitting non-elite citizenry.  Basing has also been lucrative for countries such as Djibouti, where, according to the International Monetary Fund, it accounted for an estimated 0.1% of gross domestic product in 2020, and allowed Djibouti to leverage its strategic access to a critical chokepoint between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

A Liability Also for the Host

However, military bases can also be a political liability for African governments that host them. African populations, political leaders and institutions are often wary of foreign bases for a number of reasons, including the perception that the foreign military may undermine the host government’s domestic agenda or sovereignty.

The mood across Africa about establishing more foreign bases is increasingly ambivalent. A 2016 AU Peace and Security Council decision warned countries to be “circumspect” about permitting more foreign bases, and this view has hardened further since then given the turbulent geopolitical winds in parts of the region.

China is no doubt sensitive to these developments and will be just as wary of the impermanent nature of these agreements as others. China is wont to make sure it is not caught off guard like it was when thousands of Chinese nationals were stranded in Libya in 2011, or when its economic interests were threatened in South Sudan. However, just because China wishes to have an increased footprint in the region does not necessarily translate into reality. African countries have good reason not to be seen as picking sides and may well have rebuffed or forestalled Chinese proposals.

What is China Thinking?

What is more likely is that China will seek to expand the existing civilian port infrastructure and build dual-use facilities in African ports that it has invested in. The dual-use basing model entails mixing access to commercial ports and a selective number of military facilities to downplay the military significance of China’s strategic port investments. According to the Chinese, 100 African ports have either been built, financed or are currently operated by Chinese state-owned shippers.

Indeed, Wang’s trip to Africa appears to have been less focused on establishing a new basing agreement and more so on signaling China’s consistent commitment to high-level engagements on the continent. Yet, there is good reason to believe that Wang will have had an opportunity to discuss China’s security interests while in Africa. This might have included shipping lines through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal with Tunisia and Egypt, and fishing and piracy interests off the coasts of Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. It could also have included a discussion of China’s Global Security Initiative more broadly.

In any event, China is now facing an increasingly multipolar and assertive Africa that is pushing foreign powers to clarify their security interests as security for whom and from whom. China will likely continue to push for buy ins to protect or advance its interests, but it will be as dependent as it ever was on local politics and the particular relationships those come with. All in all, this most recent senior-level Chinese visit to coastal Africa may best be interpreted as politics of the possible rather than anything more concrete for now.

Alex Vines is the research director for regions and director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House.

Armida van Rij is a senior research fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House.


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