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article imageOp-Ed: China — Losing in the South China Sea, winning in Africa?

By Kenneth Szabo     Nov 27, 2015 in Politics
With the world still reeling after the bloody Paris attacks of November 13, it’s no surprise that the flurry of international talk shops that convened in their wake went barely noticed in Western media.
The 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which wrapped up Sunday in Malaysia, and the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) which concluded on November 19, barely blipped. Although the shadow of the Paris attacks loomed large over both gatherings, leading to renewed (rhetorical) commitments to fight the scourge of terrorism, the undisputed elephant in the room was the South China Sea (SCS) crisis.
Over the past few years, a resurging China has become increasingly loath to have to share the SCS with neighboring nations — especially as Beijing developed a rudimentary yet efficient blue water navy whose capacities were tested out in the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. Its illegal incursions into the territorial waters of aforementioned nations were widely reported by the media and heightened regional tensions to levels unseen in recent years. Adding insult to injury, Beijing also embarked on a massive land reclamation program that involved dredging around several disputed islands followed by building military facilities on the newly unearthed land.
As such, it’s no surprise that the ASEAN summit ended with the signing of an unprecedented ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership, where the two actors committed themselves to a “rules-based approach in Asia, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.” This is a massive slap in Beijing’s face and shows just how much China’s claims over the SCS along the so-called “nine dash line” have angered its neighbors. Of course, this document should not be seen as the emergence of a NATO-like organization formed around ASEAN nations and the U.S. against Beijing, but more like a strategic re-balancing of ASEAN members. The causality is simple: the more China wants to control the SCS at the expense of Washington, the more ASEAN members will seek to protect their own interests by hedging their bets against Beijing by giving birth to a power system of variable geometries.
Beijing was left by the wayside as Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhemin rambled one of the most shocking double-faced statements of modern times. “Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defense and for the protection of those islands and reefs […] one should never link such military facilities with efforts to militarize the islands and reefs and militarize the South China Sea.” Translation: China is militarizing the SCS because its national interest requires it, while its national interest requires that the SCS not be militarized.
China’s stranglehold on the small group of islands (Paracel, Spratly, Pratas along with the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal) will gain the superpower more control over several advantages in the region. Possession of the islands would not only fortify China’s territorial shipping hold on the key Asian waterway, but it would also allow the country to “Shanghai” more fishing rights as well. The group of small islands cannot hold enough physical armed forces for China to be able to hang onto the disputed seas if it was significantly militarily challenged, especially by the United States. But, China is certainly capable of causing more controversial military tensions over the region, in order to prove both its nautical supremacy and also its ongoing resolve over controlling the economically valuable South Seas waterway.
However, one should never forget that China is a particularly sneaky and eminently cautious power. As the tables seemed to turn against Beijing over the South China Sea, its generals were busy signing a landmark agreement in Africa: the building of China’s first offshore military base. This is a momentous development and marks China’s joining of the elite club of nations able to project power globally. Even if Wu Qian, a defense ministry spokesman went out of his way not to describe the facility as a military base calling it instead a “logistical facility,” the reality is quite different.
Wu portrayed the facility as a refueling station and logistics station for the Chinese navy in the anti-piracy operations undertaken in the Gulf of Aden. However, given its probable location in the Obock region, it’s likely the base will take on a bigger role and will be outfitted with a landing strip for transport planes.
As I’ve written before, Djibouti is home to America’s sole military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, a fact that made President Ismail Omar Guelleh a Washington sweetheart. However, the aging autocrat, now nearing the end of his third presidential term and up for re-election in 2016, has shifted his weight squarely into Beijing’s boat after it became increasingly clear that the U.S. will not support his rule — one riddled with ghastly human rights abuses, suppression of opposition parties, journalists and just about any semblance of democratic processes.
Eager to showcase Djibouti as an oasis of stability and playing on the minuscule country’s strategic importance, Guelleh pivoted to China by signing a defense agreement in 2014, followed by inking several multi-billion-dollar investments with Chinese companies. In May, he signaled his willingness to host a Chinese military base in an interview with AFP, a move quickly followed by the eviction of a secondary American facility in the northern Obock region in August.
China holds valuable lessons for Western policymakers: the importance of accepting short-term losses for long-term gain. While pundits celebrated Obama’s strong forays into China’s SCS heartland, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) was busy reversing U.S. security gains in Africa.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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