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Strategies of Expansion

China’s securitisation of Horn of Africa

30 July 2022


Far from Fukuyama’s proclamation, history does not seem to have ended and Western liberal democracy has not triumphed; the world instead seems to be charging towards another Cold War that sees conflicting global powers compete for influence. War in Ukraine and the ongoing Ethiopian civil war are a case in point. Raising power increasingly are challenging the existing unipolar world system led by the US for more than three decades: China, globally, and Russia in Eastern Europe. A return to bi- or multi-polar world system would result in proxy wars and uncontrollable arms race similar to that which had been witnessed during the Cold War. The Horn of Africa (HoA) in this fashion has become a flashpoint of foreign security concerns in recent years.

The Somali Peninsula has gained more attention of late. International powers, including China, have growing security interests in such a strategically situated region. China, realising the economic potential of the region, aims to prevent it from turning into a Western sphere of influence, by limiting US, European, or even Russian activity. Understandably, the West and China want to protect their economic and political interests.

The concentration of China’s security and military presence in HoA raises important questions: is China looking for a direct confrontation with the West, especially the US? What, if not, is driving China’s increasing presence in the region? This essay aims to offer an insight into China’s growing activity in HoA from a geostrategic standpoint.


Djibouti Axis

The HoA serves as a steppingstone for China’s military engagement within the region, but also beyond. Beside Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, China’s presence in Djibouti is an archetypical example of a geopolitical strategy that aims to capture the regional shifts in security and balance of powers that would eventually come about owing to global developments. Strategically, Djibouti sits at the heart of HoA, overlooking the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait; historically, it is an African country where the US and France held long and strategic military presence.

Indeed, China is emerging as an investment power in the Horn. Waving tempting investments that promise ‘mutually lucrative outcomes’, China is offering countries of HoA projects in infrastructure development and its technical expertise. While HoA is a strategic region, Djibouti is of particular geopolitical interest to China.

Furthermore, the country has become a central piece in the rapidly shifting geopolitics of Africa. First, despite its modest size being the continents third smallest country, Djibouti accommodates several foreign military bases, including China; it has become ‘crowded’ with foreign troops, becoming a flashpoint of power rivalry. Second, the small size country is set to open Africa’s largest international free trade zone, thanks to large investments by Chinese corporations. Finally, Djibouti’s biggest debtor is China, which explains its heightened focus on the African country.

China’s Goals

China’s securitisation of HoA is twofold and interconnected: one the one hand, Beijing is deepening its economic investment in the region; on the other, these investments are influencing China’s foreign policy. Energy, gas, and precious metals are key strategic interests for China who has parted with just over $1 trillion dollars of credit to Africa under the Belt and Road Initiative. Seeking to protect its investments in the continent, China has increased its military presence and has carried several military exercises to signal its geopolitical interests. In short, China aims to undermine US influence in Africa.

In this context, we can address the factors that inform China’s securitisation strategy in the Horn of Africa, outlined as follows:


1.    Strategic importance of trade routes:

The Horn sits alongside a strategic route connecting Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal. The impact of the region’s location on China’s trade is evident: Somalia is situated on Bab-el-Mandeb Strait where nearly %12 of global trade, and more than 4.8 million barrels of oil products pass, not to mention other vital commodities. Low costs enable these products to reach developing countries with relative ease.


2.    Frailty of the region’s political structure:

HoA has witnessed many of Africa’s conflicts: a long war in Darfur; a persistent ethnic civil conflict in Ethiopia; armed insurgency in northern Uganda; strong presence of terrorist groups such as al Shabab in Somalia where the central government has or nearly collapsed several times; and piracy off the coast of Somalia, which threatens vessels sailing through the Gulf of Aden. These issues have posed a dilemma upon China’s policy: while China has traditionally adhered non-interference, the region’s instability requires Beijing to take proactive steps to protect its interests.


3.    Arms race on coastal Red Sea:

As mentioned above, Djibouti hosts large numbers of foreign military troops relative its size. The presence of Chinese and US military bases embodies the ongoing global bipolarity, which fuels revelry, protectionism, and restrictions on imports between the two poles. Perhaps we could draw parallels to Soviet-US rivalry that is reminiscent to Hans Morgenthau’s “apocalyptic imaginary” of the Cold War. The Horn of Africa, thus, has turned into a stage for global competition – or as Alex de Waal describes it, a “political marketplace” where China has become the biggest ‘trader’. In other words, China is leveraging its global influence to secure and protect its interests, and grow into new further security and military sectors.


4.    Links to Arabian Gulf:

Amid the diplomatic Gulf crisis, Qatar withdrew around 200 troops who were stationed at Djibouti-Eritrea boarders; China was quick to offer sending forces to the region.


Areas of Securitisation

China is turning to regional organisations for security cooperation. Under the umbrella of China-Africa Action Plan, Beijing has committed to offering African countries support in strategic areas: logistics infrastructure; peacekeeping activities, financial and food aid, and demining; and offering personnel training to the African Union Peace and Security Council. China’s peacekeeping activity is a clear shift in Beijing’s past cautious approach to the region – in fact, China openly has expressed disapproval at UN peacekeeping efforts, indicating a developing foreign policy that favours a multilateral as opposed to unilateral approach to facing regional challenges.


China established its first formal foreign military and logistics base in Djibouti in 2017, located at the Chinese-operated Port of Doraleh to the west of Djibouti City. According to the Chinese official statement, the navy base enables Beijing to deliver on its counter-piracy commitments off the coast of Somalia. Yet, it clearly gives China a strategic advantage over US presence in the region, for the base streamlines China’s operations to protect its interests. The base serves beyond the official statement China’s that its purpose is to protect maritime and land operations, linking to other regions of strategic importance to Beijing, such as Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Moreover, the base supports China’s strategy to protect its interests against the deteriorating security situation in Sudan and South Sudan. And whereas US focus shifts to counterterrorism operations in HoA, China’s interests shift to increased economic investments, attracting more African countries to the Chinese camp. Thus, Djibouti remains a contentious region where rivalry between China and the US deepens, causing a ripple effect across the region and beyond.


Shift in Foreign Policy

China seems to be increasingly abandoning its policy of non-intervention, a strategy which had been informed by Beijing’s desire to promote ‘peace and prosperity’ in contrast to US and Western approach. The changing of Djibouti’s base designation from ‘military logistics support’ to ‘protection base’ symbolises China’s intent to protecting its investments in the region from either domestic or Western threats. Therefore, as argued above, China’s presence in the Horn is not just politically driven, but also influenced by China’s economic interests in the continent. Put simply, China’s priority is protecting its billions of dollars’ worth of investments min the region, especially in Ethiopia.


China’s new approach, therefore, in dealing with security and development challenges in the Horn of Africa could be summaries in two key policies:


1.    Diplomacy:

Soon after Washington named former diplomat Jeffrey Feltman a special envoy for the Horn of Africa last year, China followed suite. In 2022, Beijing named Mr Xue Bing its first special envoy to the region. He was tasked with building strong strategic relations with countries of the region to drive peacekeeping and coordination. An appointment China made for the first time, it reveals Beijing’s strategy to contain US influence across strategic regions and in HoA in particular. China’s new vision on peace and development in the Horn encompass political, military, and economic interests that challenge US regional interests.

The significance of naming a Chinese special envoy is the timing of this decision. Special Envoy Bing assumed his role during a period of heightened conflict in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. China may be aiming to score diplomatic points with regional partners, build trust, and assert its influence in the region. Yet also, China’s financial and humanitarian investments in the region may well be welcomed by countries who prefer such approach to military intervention; although, national and populist movements are increasingly protesting China’s role in the region.


2.    Cooperation:

China’s multilateral approach to protecting its interests in the region was epitomised in the First China-Horn of Africa Peace, Good Governance and Development Conference which was organised 20-21 June 2022 in Addis Ababa. “The parties are ready to step up high-level engagements and exchanges at all levels to enhance mutual political trust and keep improving relations among the countries in the region,” a joint statement read, emphasising cooperation in areas of, inter alia, natural disaster relief, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, illicit weapons, and human trafficking. Top ranking officials from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan were in attendance, although Eritrea did not attend despite being visited by the Chinese special envoy early 2022.

The Chinese special envoy referenced the ‘complex ethnic, racial, and political challenges’ driving conflict in the region. And while he attributed the roots of these ongoing issues to Africa’s long and troubled history with Western colonialism, Mr Bing said China did not share that history with the West nor does it have colonial interests in the continent.


Being held in Addis Ababa for the first time, however, the conference sets Ethiopia as a central piece to China’s Road and Belt Initiative. More than 400 Chinese infrastructure and manufacturing projects are ongoing in Ethiopia, estimated at $4 billion; the fact that the majority of road, rail, and infrastructure projects are being financed and built by China does not come as surprise, thus making China the largest economic partner of Ethiopia. The country’s growth rate had been nearing an impressive 10% for more than a decade prior to COVID-19 pandemic. But some experts have warned of a looming Chinese ‘debt trap’ as Ethiopia amasses nearly $13.7 billion in debt, only second to Angola in Chinese debts.

Ethiopia maintains strong political and security ties to China. The China-Ethiopian relations have spanned many years and across many sectors: Ehiopia is the first African country to host the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in 2003; the two countries signed an defence agreement in 2005, entailing training, technology, and peacekeeping; and more recently, Ethiopia has been the beneficiary of Chinese drones which has been used in the Tigray War.


It may be concluded that China’s long-held policy of non-intervention continues to inform its strategy in Africa. China been a proponent of ‘African solutions to African challenges’ approach. Yet the presence of more than 30 thousand Chinese citizens in an increasingly unstable region is a raising dilemma for China’s policy in the region, having to shift to a more dynamic approach that secures its interests. The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, causing China to hold off its investments and projects in the region, may have accelerated Beijing’s adoption of a new approach that contains US influence. China’s strategy, therefore, considers the highly complex racial and ethnic nuances driving the conflict. And, setting aside the official Chinese or Western narrative for a moment, one can notice the global rivalry taking place in the Horn of Africa and beyond.


Against this background a shift in global balance of power in HoA may be addressed. While the US is preoccupied with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, China expands in earnest its influence, playing a sensitive role in the region’s security. As Special Envoy Bing puts it, “China’s role goes beyond trade and investment but also peacekeeping, development, and security… Chine can no longer restrict the mandate of troops in Djibouti to peacekeeping”. Such position reflects the change in the way China sees its role in the region. We may expect a more active role for China’s military under the banner of security operations or partnerships, pushing its security agenda protecting its interests along the Red Sea coast and the Indian Ocean from Sudan to Kenya.