China in Africa
In addition to stationing troops on the disputed islands it claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is rapidly expanding its network of commercial ports across the Indian Ocean. This comes as China is sending warships into the Ocean with growing frequency, leading to fears that the commercial ports could presage military bases, The latest addition is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, acquired in a debt swap deal—the Colombo government was forgiven $1 billion in debt to Beijing in exchange for the Hambantota facility. The agreement explicitly bars China's military use of the port, but critics note that Sri Lanka remains heavily indebted to China, and could be pressured to allow it. The pact also comes as the People's Liberation Army is providing training to Sri Lanka's military. Beijing also donated a frigate to Sri Lanka's navy after the pact was announced. China is simultaenously loaning political support to the Sri Lanka government in its defiance of international pressure for a war crimes investigation over its internal conflict with Tamil rebels.
Concern is mounting for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast forests and rich wildlife as logging concessions and licenses to explore for oil in protected areas are prepared ahead of presidential elections later this year. A moratorium on industrial logging, in place since 2002, has been broken with three concessions reportedly handed out by the DRC environment ministry to Chinese-owned logging companies since February. A further 14 logging concessions are expected to be granted within months, according to Unearthed, the Greenpeace investigative unit. In addition, reports referenced by Greenpeace indicate the government is preparing to reclassify large areas inside Salonga and Virunga national parks, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The swearing in of Zimbabwe's new President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa is being hailed as opening a new era for the country that had been ruled by Robert Mugabe from independence in 1980 until his dramatic downfall this week. But Mnangagwa had long been Mugabe's right-hand man, and in his inaugural speech paid tribute to him as a "mentor" and Zimbabwe's "founding father." Mnangagwa is known by the nickname "Ngwena" (Crocodile)—apparently a reference to his days as a commando in the Crocodile Group, an elite Chinese-trained guerilla unit that carried out acts of sabotage in the struggle against colonial and white supremacist rule in the 1960s. (BBC News, CNN, VOA) But some are pointing to Mnangagwa's reputation for ruthlessness even after the country's liberation from white rule, and are demanding accountability over his role in ethnic massacres in the 1980s.
Last month, the New York Times reported that China is to establish its first overseas military base as part of "a sweeping plan to reorganize its military into a more agile force capable of projecting power abroad." The base, in the Horn of Africa mini-state of Djibouti, will be used for policing the Gulf of Aden against piracy. The US also has 4,000 troops stationed at Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier—from which it conducts drone operations in Somalia and Yemen. Former colonial master France as well as Japan and other nations also station forces in Djibouti. (The Hill, Dec. 10) Now reports are mounting that China is seeking a second base in Africa—this time in Nambia, which currently hosts no foreign military forces.
An advance unit of a 700-strong Chinese infantry battalion arrived in South Sudan last week, marking the first People's Liberation Army infantry force to participate in a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Commander Wang Zhen said the battalion will be equipped with drones, armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles and mortars, among other weapons "completely for self-defense purpose." The force is to be fully deployed by April. Speaking during talks across the border in Sudan's capital Khartoum, Beijing's Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured: "China's mediation of South Sudan issues is completely the responsibility and duty of a responsible power, and not because of China's own interests."
Nigerian radical Islamist group Boko Haram's is increasingly troubling the remote Far North Region of Cameroon, which has seen several attacks in recent months, with foreigners also abducted for ransom. This month, heavily armed men suspected to be Boko Haram fighters attacked Bonderi village, five kilometers from the border with Nigeria, and stole a military vehicle, four motorbikes and weapons from the gendarmerie base there, government officials told IRIN news agency. Another group of suspected Boko Haram gunmen also raided a gendarmerie border post in Zina town on July 8, three days prior to the Bonderi attack, and stole guns and ammunition. In June, two teenage sons of a Muslim cleric were kidnapped in Limani border town. The attacks, the latest of which claimed the life of a police officer and wounded another on July 18, have occurred despite the deployment in June of 1,000 additional soldiers to the Far North.
In a move being openly portrayed as part of a race with the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, China has set up a working group to study the feasibility of a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). The proposal comes ahead of a meeting in May of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which China will host. Wang Shouwen, an assistant commerce minister, assured: "We think there will be no conflict between the FTAAP and the region's other FTAs under discussion." But reports note that the news comes just as progress of the TPP has snagged over Japanese insistence on protecting its agricultural and automotive sectors. Chinese President Xi Jinping in October said at the APEC business forum in Indonesia that Beijing will "commit itself to building a trans-Pacific regional cooperation framework that benefits all parties"—an obvious veiled criticism of the TPP. (Tax News, May 5; AFP, April 30)
Amid ongoing fighting in South Sudan, the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 7 notes that two of the regional powers supposedly attempting to head off further escalation through a "diplomatic effort" are Kenya and Uganda—whcih were "recruiting investors to back an oil pipeline in South Sudan in December when a rebellion upended the world's newest nation." Most reportage reads as if the "upending" came out of nowhere, but when a precursor rebellion broke out in Jonglei state last March, we noted widespread theories that Sudan was quietly backing it to interrupt plans for alternative pipeline routes through Kenya or Ethiopia, which would break South Sudan's reliance on old enemy Khartoum for getting its crude to market. So we may now be looking at a proxy war for South Sudan, pitting US client states Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia against Sudan. On the ground, the Dinka (the group most closely linked to the ruling faction) are pitted against the Nuer (whose legitimate grievances may be exploited by Khartoum). Of course the model of a ruling clique controlling oil wealth and distributing it in clientelist manner to build a power base is what is really at root of the conflict—and neither side has any interest in challenging that.