This is the second part of an interview with David Arase, honorary professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and resident professor of international politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
The first part of the interview appeared under the title “Belt & Road Phase 2 moves beyond infrastructure.” Here we continue with the professor’s assessment of the military aspects of the Belt & Road Initiative.
Q. Africa seems to be the best example of the “military-civil fusion” that (in the words of the US State Department) China sees “as critical to advancing its regional and global ambitions.” Could you elaborate on that?
Let’s start with diplomacy and business.
China engages with Africa via the African Union and the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which started in 2000. Chinese leaders announce headline African loan initiatives and pose as Africa’s main friend and patron of development.
At the 2018 Forum, China pledged to lend and invest US$60 billion during 2018-20. This largess is parceled out via official bilateral negotiations with 53 of 54 African countries, and 46 of them are official Belt & Road Initiative partners. All of this helps to win solid African support for Chinese policies and initiatives in international forums.
In the past 15 years or so China’s engagement effort has made it Africa’s largest trade partner and largest bilateral lender, and fifth largest investor.
There are perhaps 10,000 Chinese businesses (mostly small) in Africa and 1-2 million Chinese living there after initially coming as laborers to build projects. In 2018, there were 81,562 African students in China (compared with fewer than 2000 in 2003) and as many as 500,000 Africans living in China.
In 2020, according to Afrobarometer, 59% of Africans had a positive image of China – outshining the United States’ 58%.
In 2018, the 53 Forum members supported Beijing’s “one-China principle.” In 2020, 22 African countries signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang, and 25 signed a letter to that council endorsing its National Security Law targeting Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
One statistical analysis of UN General Assembly voting found that Africa is the continent that most closely follows China’s voting behavior. Another found that Chinese aid distribution correlates positively with African voting alignment in the UN.
Thus, the Belt & Road Initiative brings African leaders into alignment with Sinocentric global governance, and China commands a significant bloc of votes to install heads of UN agencies who will follow party-state guidance.
Q: And this provides an opening or the basis for military cooperation?
It puts things in context.
An expanding military presence has been a longstanding Chinese objective in Africa. The Chinese government published an “Africa Policy White Paper” in 2006 that listed four dimensions of party-state security cooperation with Africa: military, international peacekeeping, domestic police and security and non-traditional.
At the 2012 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation meeting, the Chinese side proposed the “Initiative on China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security” to assist African Union peacekeeping and African Standby Force development, and to help individual countries develop military, police and intelligence capacities.
By this time, China was participating in six UN peacekeeping operations with more than 1,500 personnel. It also had 18 defense attachés in Africa, and more than 100 Chinese military experts were in Tanzania training its military and setting up a national defense university.
African officers were studying at the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) National Defense University and PLA officers were teaching at African military institutions and conducting small arms technical and ammunition exchange with a number of African countries to enhance local military capacity.
Today, China has ringed the entire continent with ports located in 28 countries: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritania, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
They ship Africa’s mineral and energy resources back to China, but they also support a military presence. The PLA Navy has made port calls to all but a handful of these ports, and has called on non-Chinese ports in Eritrea, Seychelles, Senegal and Tunisia.
Q: How is this strategy implemented? Certainly, all African countries do not have the same type of relationship with China.
In descending order of importance, China’s top three levels of bilateral relations are comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership (CSCP), comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) and strategic partnership (SP).
“Comprehensive” in this context means political, economic, technological and cultural. “Strategic” means important, stable and long-term. The terms are relative and the contents can vary from case to case.
CSCP expresses a close quasi-alliance status. African countries in the CSCP category have large port projects with dual-use capability. Western countries have at most CSP status.
Invoking the united front legacy of partnership between China and Third World national independence movements in fighting Western imperialism, and in line with Xi Jinping’s diplomatic thought, CSCP is a partnership to “democratize” global governance.
This means countering the international institutions – especially international economic organizations, which are dominated by Western industrialized countries and which have presumably ignored the interests of developing countries.
Here is a list of the African countries in each category.
- CSCP: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Guinea and Ethiopia (where inland logistics centers called “dry ports” serve seaports in Eritrea and Djibouti; Ethiopia itself is landlocked)
- CSP: Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria
- SP: Sudan, Angola
The politicians, bureaucrats, military officers and domestic security officials of African partners are offered professional training by their Chinese counterparts to demonstrate the utility of China’s party-state governance model and to influence their political thinking and professional interests.
At present, 25 African countries are known to receive political training from the Chinese Communist Party, of which five also have China-funded political schools on their territory. Twelve use Chinese digital surveillance technology for domestic security.
- Political training: Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Algeria
- Political school: Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia
- Digital surveillance: Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Algeria
Q. That’s quite impressive, whatever one may think about it. Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed things?
The coronavirus pandemic does not change the logic of Belt & Road geostrategy, but it does affect its prospects for success in different sectors, at different levels and in complex ways.
Net overseas lending by the China Development Bank and the China Export-Import Bank fell from $75 billion in 2016 to only $4 billion in 2019 – even before the pandemic hit. Growing scarcity of liquid dollar reserves, domestic financing needs and more careful project selection to improve the Belt & Road Initiative’s reputation help to explain this.
Covid is likely to further reduce new Belt & Road lending as Chinese credit and dollar reserves are directed toward supporting domestic consumption, growth and technological independence from the US and other advanced economies – and as debt distress among Belt & Road partners leads to calls for debt relief.
The contraction of supply and demand for mega-project financing and the poor image of Belt & Road project lending will turn the focus away from debt-driven heavy infrastructure cooperation – which has, in any case, already accomplished its political purpose to acquire interests and influence across the developing world.
Having achieved this aim, the times now call for efforts to turn geostrategic presence into dominance. The next phase will promote investment and trade in financial services, e-commerce, and technologies – that is, in biotechnology, digital and space.
Meanwhile, on a parallel track, China’s party-state media, cultural, educational, political, military and security organs will deepen efforts to shape host-country politics and policy in favorable ways.
Q: Taking a broader view, what’s the outlook for Belt & Road in 2022 and beyond?
Belt & Road cooperation backed by skillful diplomacy is advancing China’s geopolitical influence across greater Eurasia, primarily through economic and political cooperation that reorients strategic relations in favor of China and opens up security cooperation with partner countries to extend PLA operations and protection missions across the Belt & Road footprint.
Thus far, the greatest progress has been in Africa, Central Asia and Pakistan. The greatest failure has been in India. which seems to be aligning with the US, Japan and Australia to maintain India’s status as South Asia’s resident major power and to prevent PLA Navy predominance in the Indo-Pacific, which could threaten India’s trade and imported energy lifelines.
The most critical question today concerns Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. On the one hand, China’s nine-dash-line sovereignty claim has been declared illegal; PLA-backed coercion to stop other states from asserting their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and freedom of navigation rights there created grievances and distrust towards China; and coastal states have not abandoned their lawful EEZ rights to China.
On the other hand, the Belt & Road Initiative has helped to paralyze local resistance to the PLA takeover of the South China Sea. The US-led Quad (US-Japan-Australia-India security partnership) is attempting to preserve existing governance norms by maintaining a strategic presence, but the effort is unsustainable without at least some local states’ support.
So, the critical question looking forward is whether growing economic dependence on China, combined with growing PLA intimidation, will cause ASEAN to kowtow to Beijing and cease cooperating with Quad efforts to preserve open regional access under the rules-based international order in return for the prospect of stability – with increasing economic dependence on China – inside an exclusive China-governed regional hegemonic order safeguarded by the PLA Navy.
How it is answered here will point to what could happen elsewhere across the Afro-Eurasian space in the years leading up to 2049, when the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding.
Scott Foster, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, is an analyst with LightStream Research in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667