IF THERE is a modern gateway from the east to Africa, it is arguably Addis Ababa’s airport. Passengers passing through its dusty terminals on their way to some far-flung capital will be surprised to find that getting an Ethiopian meal is remarkably difficult. Asian dumplings, however, are available at two different cafés. Signs marking the gates are in English, Amharic and Chinese, as are announcements.
Dozing gently on the beige loungers are untold numbers of young Chinese workers waiting for flights. They are part of a growing army of labourers, businessmen and engineers who can be seen directing the construction of roads, railways and ports across much of east Africa.
Concerns about China’s involvement in Africa are often overplayed. Accusations that it is buying up vast tracts of farmland, factories and mines, for instance, are blown out of proportion. Even so, its growing influence on the continent has nettled India and Japan, who are both boosting their engagement in response.
As with previous rounds of rivalry in Africa, such as during the cold war, at least some of this activity relates to access to bases and ports to control the sea. China’s involvement in Africa now includes a growing military presence. Thousands of Chinese soldiers have donned the UN’s blue helmets in Mali and South Sudan, where several have been killed trying to keep an imaginary peace. Chinese warships regularly visit African ports.
China maintains a naval squadron that escorts mostly Chinese-flagged vessels through the Gulf of Aden. But some diplomats fret that China has been using these patrols to give its navy practice in operating far from home, including in offensive actions. “You wouldn’t normally use submarines for counter-piracy patrols,” says one.
Patrolling for pirates has also given China an excuse to set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, next door to an existing American one. Yet the more alarmist worries about China—that it is planning to build naval bases in a “string of pearls” stretching from China to the Red Sea and as far as Namibia’s Walvis Bay on the Atlantic coast—have not materialised. The Walvis Bay rumour seems to be a red herring. China has used its ships and soldiers to protect its own citizens in Africa and the Middle East: in 2011 it evacuated 35,000 of them from Libya and last year one of its ships rescued 600 from Yemen. But its main naval focus remains the South China Sea.
Wary does it
Still, India is deeply suspicious of China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. A wide network of some 32 Indian radar stations and listening posts is being developed in the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius, among other countries. This will enable India to monitor shipping across expanses of the ocean. It is also improving its ability to project power in waters it considers its own, and is arming friendly countries such as Mauritius. Among other things, India is building a naval and air base on Assumption Island, north of Madagascar and within easy reach of many of east Africa’s newly discovered offshore gasfields. “It’s the Indian Ocean, stupid,” quips one seasoned commentator in mimicry of Indian diplomats on its power projection. “They say it’s ‘our near abroad’.”
Japan has also been flexing its naval muscle but in a more limited manner. This month it pledged $120m in aid to boost counter-terrorism efforts in Africa. It has been a stalwart contributor to the multinational naval force policing the seas off Somalia’s coast. Sino-Japanese rivalry is fiercest in diplomacy and trade. Two prizes are on offer: access to natural resources and markets, and the continent’s 54 votes at the UN. Much of the effort to win the former was pioneered by Japan in the 1990s, when it helped build ports and railways. Akihiko Tanaka of the University of Tokyo, a former president of the Japan International Co-operation Agency, says that for years Japan’s aid to Africa was “qualitatively different” from that of other rich nations in part because it focused on infrastructure rather than the direct alleviation of poverty. “We were criticised a lot,” he says. “Now there is an almost unanimous view that you need to invest in infrastructure.”
Japan’s latest spending spree on infrastructure will speed economic growth on the continent; but there is a degree of one-upmanship and duplication. Japan recently handed over the keys to a new cargo terminal at Kenya’s main port in Mombasa. Meanwhile, a short hop down the coast at Bagamoyo, Tanzania is building east Africa’s biggest port—with Chinese cash.
On the diplomatic front both Japan and India are trying to make common cause with African states that want to reform the UN Security Council. They argue that Africa deserves permanent seats on it, as do they. China favours a permanent seat for an African country, and it doesn’t mind India having one. But in return it expects endorsement of its stand against Japan getting a seat.
Both Japan and China back up such diplomatic efforts with aid and, at least in China’s case, this seems to have helped win it friends. Countries that vote with China in the UN (for instance over Taiwan) usually get more cash from it, according to AidData, a project based at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
China also makes African friends by selling arms. In the five years to 2015 it nearly doubled its share of weapons supplied to sub-Saharan Africa, from little more than a tenth of the total to almost a quarter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank. It has sold tanks and jets to Tanzania, armoured vehicles to Burundi and Cameroon, and missile launchers to Morocco, to name but a few. It also wins friends among the continent’s war criminals through its policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries, for instance by opposing the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Japan, which until 2014 was prohibited by its constitution from selling weapons, and supports the ICC, has had a harder time. It has concentrated on dispensing aid and using soft power, such as awarding scholarships for study in Japan and free classes in akido and karate at its embassy in Nairobi. But even in this sphere it is outclassed by China, which has established some 46 Confucius Institutes in Africa to teach Chinese language and culture. China also flies thousands of Africa’s ruling-party officials, civil servants and trade unionists to attend political-training schools in China. This has worked so well in South Africa that the ruling African National Congress last year published a foreign-policy discussion document suggesting that China’s Communist Party “should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.”
Yet apart from South Africa, which has slavishly aligned itself with China (for instance by voting with it against a UN resolution to protect the right of people to hold peaceful protests), most African countries are good at playing off rivals against each other, says Alex Vines of Chatham House, a London think-tank. Many have diversified their diplomatic links by opening new embassies, including ones that cross previous divisions between rival powers in Africa. Countries including Burundi, Mauritania and Togo, that used to fall firmly within France’s sphere of influence have opened embassies in Britain. “This is a really great time for clever African countries to get really good deals,” says Mr Vines.
Source: Asia’s scramble for Africa | The Economist