Africa with almond eyes. Chinese military presence changes global geopolitical balances

(To Giampiero Venturi)

The black continent becomes more and more yellow. If the penetration of the Asian giant in Africa was limited to the economic (and consequently political) aspect, now the rules of the game change: Beijing moves the soldiers and is about to formalize its new role as global power.

The starting point for the important geopolitical note is given by Djibouti, a small state of the Horn of Africa, where China has started building a permanent military base.

Djibouti is a small state as large as Emilia Romagna, with less than 900.000 inhabitants. The strategic position on the Horn of Africa at the entrance to the Red Sea makes it a key country from the logistic point of view both for the control of maritime traffic between Asia and Europe, and with regard to projection capabilities towards the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Peninsula.

The run to occupy a place in the sun in the country began with the independence of 1977. The colonial heritage of the French, present today with 2000 men of Foreign Legion and special forces, have added to the 2001 the Americans, who in the former legionary structure of Camp Lemonnier maintain a force of 4000 units. Djibouti is today the only US permanent base in the continent, home to, among other things, the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn Africa which oversees operations throughout Africa.

The growing jihadist threat has further increased interest in Djibouti over time: 2011 arrived in Japan for the first time on a fixed base far away from home by 1945; in the 2013 we also come with the tricolor that returns to East Africa on a structure specifically designed for military 300.

Just as other countries (Germany and Spain are present but not in a stable position), almost all of the foreign military garrisons in Djibouti have the sole aim of supporting counter-piracy operations along the Horn of Africa. The only countries in the African country that maintain a strategic interest independent of the terrorist threat were in fact only France and the USA until today. The arrival of the Chinese changes the cards on the table.

If the symbols are meaningful, just take an example to understand the course of the times. The 27 last June, Djibouti celebrated the 40 Anniversary of Independence from France (photo). At the usual military parade (which sparks a lot of Iranian military material radiated, given as a counterpart for the lease of our military base, nda), this year besides the US contingent and the French Foreign Legion also participated a Department of the Chinese Navy, which marched with its perfect pitch calibrated to 70 cm and the red flag in the head. There is no need to add more. Let's just say that the Chinese military infrastructure is near Obock, a port to more than 200 km from the capital of Djibouti. The size of the men and the half of the employees is the least important.

The die is now drawn. China, now considered a global expansive economic and financial virus, now also shows the muscles without shyness. For the 2017 Beijing will spend almost 150 billion in defense (data SIPRI), with an increase of 7% compared to the previous year (where there was an identical growth trend). The evolution of the Chinese military instrument is now well established.

Since Deng Xiaoping's reforms, the transformation of the armed forces from a guardian of ideology to a geopolitical tool has been progressive. Parallel to a constant modernization of assets with the aim of improving operational capacity and competitiveness, the Beijing authorities have never lost the final goal: to promote China to a global power.

The official statements obviously go in the opposite direction, trying to defuse a phenomenon that is now known to all. China claims that its soldiers in Africa are only tasked with defending infrastructure connected to Chinese companies and personnel on the ground. In reality, throughout the continent there is the feeling that the Chinese presence is something more than a simple self-defense and goes hand in hand with the new strategic choices of the Beijing government.

In 2015 South Sudan was the first Chinese infantry battalion ever to be deployed abroad for a UN mission. About 1000 soldiers have left behind the oval of the UN contribution, the enormous economic interests Beijing has in the young and battered African country.

If this is the way, there are other geometric advances to be expected. The numbers on the economic penetration of the rest are scared. China already monopolizes oil extraction in Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and invests figures (60 billion dollars allocated to the 2015) for infrastructures, which include the creation of ports in Tanzania and entire residential airs in South Africa , the next financial and logistics branch of China in the continent.

What to expect? In short, the leap in quality of the Chinese presence in Africa must be considered on two levels:

  • as a possible ring of the China-US global clash that can be integrated with rising friction in the South China Sea;
  • as a stage for a geopolitical maturation away from the theaters close to its borders and independent of direct confrontation and self-defense. In this second case, convergence towards a global political clash with the US, already largely anticipated by analysts for the 21st century, would be only a matter of time.

Many answers will come from the baptism of fire of the new Chinese military power. To understand if the dragon is made of paper or steel, Beijing will need a lot of experience in the field. Parallel to political maturity, it will soon have to pay a human and political price.

The exponential Chinese growth of the past 25 years has so far been fueled without the limits of politically correct and democracy. Becoming global power will soon impose new costs.

(photo: US Air National Guard)