Africa has become an unlikely Ground Zero in China’s attempt to break America’s global hegemony. Nothing demonstrate this than two tiny African countries with a combined population of less than 3 Million- Namibia 2.303,000 and Djibouti 886, 313 that have become the epicentre of the Sino- American competition.
For comparison, Kansas State, 34th in terms of population, has more people than the combined population of Namibia and Djibouti. In terms of the size Djibouti is the same size as New Jersey.
Remarkably, Africa which until recently was regarded as the backwater of global diplomatic game, a poster child for conflict, famine and coups, because of decades of sustained economic growth and the search for the next frontier by the global powers, placed Africa at the sharp end of geostrategic contest.
As an emerging power, everything China does attracts attention, and therefore, the South China Sea tension rightly hogs the major news headlines- because it ticks off all the necessary diplomatic boxes. However, another equally high octane diplo-maritime competition between China and America is taking place behind the headlines.
Decades of sustained economic growth
Over the last few years, Africa has recorded remarkable stable economic growth; in 2010, Africa had a middle class of about 313 million people, or 34 percent of the population, according to the African Development Bank— almost three times the count in 1980, when they made up 26 percent.
Seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Seventy percent of the continent’s people live in countries that posted average growth rates in excess of 4 percent over the past decade, has made the continent as the next frontier of business/political and diplomatic.
According to African Development Bank’s 2015 Economic Outlook “many African countries have improved their investment climate and conditions for doing business, which enhance long-term growth prospects. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Senegal and Togo are even in the top ten countries worldwide with the most reforms making it easier to do business”.
However, major African currencies have been performing poorly against the major global currencies. Nonetheless, this and many other impressive statistics has made Africa the next frontier of economic growth. The nexus between Africa’s economic growths, hence a decent return on investment, and global powers search for the next place to invest has made the continent a perfect candidate for the competition, with each wooing, as opposed to conditionality- a modus operandi decades ago.
Djibouti’s “Arc of Democracy” or “String of Pearls?
Djibouti has assumed an outsized strategic importance in the Indian Ocean pitting China and United States and its allies. While the United States and its allies would want to make Djibouti part of the Arc of Democracy connecting Djibouti to Port Blair to Yokosuka, China wants Djibouti to be under its Strings of Pearls orbit.
According to reports, China will in the next few years build naval bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Mynanmar in the northern Indian Ocean; Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique in the western Indian Ocean; and Seychelles and Madagascar in the central South Indian Ocean. Most of these primarily target the lucrative Indian Ocean trade route.
China is in discussions with Djibouti to build a naval base in the town of Obock where lucrative and strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait acts as a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea and the Sauz Canal.
According to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) fact-sheet on global oil chokepoints, 3.8 million barrels of oil and “refined petroleum products” passed through the Bab el-Mandeb each day on its way to Europe, Asia, and the US, making it the world’s fourth-busiest chokepoint.
According to World Oil Transit Chokepoints, Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, In 2006, an estimated 3.3 million barrels (520,000 m3) of oil passed through the strait per day, out of a world total of about 43 million barrels per day (6,800,000 m3/d) moved by tankers.
China’s Djibouti overture is back on the heel of United States signing of a 20 years lease for Camp Lemonnier, the Naval Expeditionary Base, situated at Djibouti’s Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport and home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa of the U.S. Africa Command, the face of the United States presence in Africa.
The terms of the lease renewal is about $70 million a year — $63 million in lease fees and the rest in development aid — more than double the current leasing fees of roughly $30 million a year. A clean demonstration of the value the United States attaches to the base.
While in the past China looked at Africa largely through the economic lens as a counter weight to the West, here, stealthy, China is guided by security more than trade, and Djibouti ticks the dual security and trade box.
In Namibia China is exploring building a naval base in Walvis Bay. “The South Atlantic, while below the radar of most policy makers today, has played an outsized role in modern naval history. Therein lies the importance of Walvis Bay’
The Walvis Bay will provide China with the ‘ability to patrol the critical Cape of Good Hope around Africa and Cape Horn around South America. The approaches to the key North Atlantic sea lanes linking the Americas, Africa and Europe would be nearby’
Walvis Bay and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait gives China a significant naval leverage and control of the major routes.
Recognising the critical utility of Walvis Bay, the United States, has embarked on charm offensive; barely three months in office, President Hage Geingob Ray Mabus of Namibia met United State Secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon.
With Facing East- being in China’s sphere of influence, or West being a choice most countries have to make, a stark throwback to the Cold War era, how this two African countries negotiate the tricky ‘double dipping’, will in the future form the template of how to accommodate the West and its technological prowess, and the East, with trade first approach. Either way, the sea change of Africa’s relations with the outsider needs to anchored on a solid mutually beneficial foundation, rather than one way traffic; whether that involves China- the most significant player in recent years, the West- that is playing catch up, or both at the same time.