China hasn’t been known for establishing military bases in Africa – or even beyond its immediate sphere of influence. This is changing following its decision to build a military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The base will be next door to the United States Africa Command.
China will be able to use the base to improve the way it manages its peacekeeping operations and humanitarian efforts in Africa, as well as its regional maritime operations.
How should this be understood in terms of China’s global positioning? And what are the implications of its expanding military footprint in Africa?
The brief answer is that there has not been a sudden change in China’s role and foreign policy profile on the continent. Instead, the change has been gradual and incremental. This is particularly evident from an international peacekeeping perspective.
Beijing’s views and approach towards United Nations peacekeeping have changed significantly since China joined the UN in 1971. A major shift took place after the end of the Cold War and, over the years, it’s gradually taken a more positive stance and indicated a greater willingness to contribute.
Today China contributes peacekeepers in substantial numbers to operations in South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In doing so, it’s deliberately sending a message that its rising profile is not a strategic threat to other major powers. Instead, it wants to be regarded as a friend to developing nations and be more responsive to global expectations. This includes the need to reduce tensions and conflicts.
China’s role in Africa can be understood from three broad perspectives: to assert its position as a global power, craft a positive image of itself, and to promote its national interests.
China increasingly intends to show that it is a global power. The new base in Djibouti should be viewed in this context. It’s in line with China’s views on international peacekeeping. This is that peacekeeping is way of exerting greater influence on international affairs through the UN.