The extent of China’s ability to project power worldwide became apparent with the construction of a People’s Liberation Army support and logistics base in Djibouti in July 2017, the first out-of-state military installation for China since 1958. Located less than ten kilometres from Camp Lemmonier (the only US military base in Africa), the Djibouti base broadens the scope of China’s armed forces well-beyond the natural extent of the country’s state borders. Moreover, together with the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka – both serving as major commercial hubs to China, the Djibouti base triangulates China’s presence in the Upper Western Indian Ocean (UWIO). This base had proven crucial to strengthen Beijing’s position as a regional security provider, and to secure the country’s national economic interests in the area. Most strikingly, China’s impulse was confirmed by Beijing’s involvement in peacekeeping operations in East Africa under the United Nations (UN), and in the anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden (GoA) established by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Since the 1955 Bandung Conference, China’s foreign policy had been based on the “principle of non-intervention”, which stipulates that Beijing refrains from meddling in the internal affairs of others. In light of this principle, it is unsurprising that the country had been one of the UNSC fiercest opposers of peacekeeping. After all, the exercise of peacekeeping clashes with the principle of non-intervention, as it consists of international armed forces that operate on the territory of another state.
Yet, China experienced a change of heart in the past ten years. Beijing has in fact turned into the UNSC topmost contributor of peacekeeping forces (fig. 1), the tenth country in the world and the sixth in Asia. A change that was elicited by the fact that UN peacekeepers can only operate with the consent of the parties involved, somewhat solving the “non-intervention-peacekeeping” conundrum.
More than 40% of Chinese peacekeepers are deployed in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Established in 2011, the mission aims to protect civilians, monitor human rights and implement the 2017 agreement on the cessation of hostilities in the country. Yet, South Sudan is not the sole East African theatre of UN peacekeeping operations counting a major deployment of Chinese contingent troops. The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), in fact, makes up for about 15% of all China-deployed UN peacekeepers. The combination of these two missions account for almost 60% of China’s total personnel contribution to UN peacekeeping operations (fig. 2) – a rate that emphasizes the extent of China’s presence in East Africa. After all, Sudan and South Sudan’s geographic locations are logistically strategic for China, as they can rely on a direct passage to the Djibouti military base. Ethiopia, in fact, as the “connecting state”, is one of Beijing’s biggest supporters in the African continent, and has been the recipient of US 24 billion dollars of Chinese investments since 2006. Investments that established Beijing’s control over crucial sea lines of communication.
Another attempt to secure China’s economic interests in the UWIO are anti-piracy missions in the GoA. Indeed, due to governmental instability, piracy had developed off the coasts of Somalia since the early 2000s. After the UNSC resolution 1816 condemning piracy in the Horn of Africa, and after more than “a fifth of the 1,265 Chinese-owned, -cargoed, or -crewed ships transiting Somali waters in 2008 faced piracy” (p. 298), China started to conduct autonomous anti-piracy missions. Among Asian powers, India and South Korea also started to engage in similar activities. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been in charge of these operations since 2008: a mandate that contributed to PLAN turning into a “blue-water force”, capable of performing operations in open oceans. Although no succesful pirate attack has been reported in the area since 2012, China’s PLAN continues to serve as a securitizing force. Yet, the rationale of these missions passed from countering Somali pirates to supporting Beijing’s economic interests and political agenda for the region.
Although China seldom presents itself as a security force, preferring to be associated with its economic and development activities, the UWIO makes an interesting case for the convergence of these two objectives. Such a dual mandate, in fact, assisted the country in projecting political power. For instance, Beijing fuelled discussions on diplomatic relations between African countries and Taiwan, and today only eSwatini continues to favour the island. Then, China’s succesful security operations not only secured Beijing’s investments but also transformed the country into a politically relevant power at the regional level. Yet, if unimpeded, China’s growing political role in the UWIO risks overturning the delicate balance of the area, and aggravate competition up to the point of conflict. The UWIO, after all, remains at the crossroads of an ever-growing number of powers, and even the slightest change may prove responsible for a devastating “domino effect”.