September 2008

The Military Dimensions of Africa’s New Status in Global Geopolitics

By Daniel Volman*

Paper Prepared for Nordic Africa Institute Conference: “China-India-Africa Relations: New Strategic Encounters”, Uppsala, Sweden, 22-23 September 2008

1) The growing economic, political, and military involvement of China, India, and other external powers in Africa, particularly the interest of their governments and corporations in access to African supplies of oil and other strategic resources.

In recent years, China, India, and a number of other external powers have dramatically increased their economic, political, and military involvement in Africa. The main reason for this, of course, is the desire of their governments and corporations to gain and expand their access to supplies of oil, natural gas, uranium, copper, cobalt, coltan, gold, platinum, diamonds, and other strategic resources.

The importance of these resources for the economic development and political stability of these industrializing countries is well known and there are specialists here who know far more than I about the details of this, so I won’t repeat it here. What is needed is some perspective on the significance of this in the broader context of Africa’s economic relations with the rest of the world. For example, China’s growing role in oil production in Africa is often cited as the most important example of how these new powers are usurping the place of the United States and European countries and threatening to “expel” the west from Africa. But China still only gets less than 9% of sub-Saharan Africa’s total oil exports; while 32% of Africa’s oil still goes to the United States and 33% still goes to Europe. China does obtain significant amounts of oil from African countries—some 30% of its total imports, primarily from Sudan, Angola, and Nigeria—but it actually gets more of its imported oil from the Middle East, specifically from Saudi Arabia where oil production is dominated by American firms. So the situation is a little more complicated than the picture that is often presented.

One of China’s smaller, but most noteworthy, endeavors is in Ethiopia, where the Chinese firm Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (part of the the China Petroleum and Chemical Company [SINOPEC]) is conducting a seismic survey to explore for oil and gas deposits in the Ogaden region—which is populated mostly by Somalis—under a contract from the Malaysian firm Petronas and South-West Energy, an Ethiopian company licensed in Hong Kong. In April 2007, hundreds of members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (the ONLF, which is fighting to make the region a part of Somalia) attacked the company’s premises in Abole, overpowering 50 Ethiopian Army troops who were guarding the facility and killing 65 Ethiopians—mostly laborers—and nine Chinese technicians. Seven Chinese oil workers were kidnapped and then released to Red Cross five days after attack. The Ethiopian government launched a major military offensive against the ONLA in June 2007, but in November 2007, Zhongyuan announced that it would not return to resume work in the Ogaden. Petronas is now expecting to hire Iranian firm named Oil Exploration Operation Company to continue exploration work in Ogaden. Pexco, another Malaysian firm, is also expected to begin gravity survey work in January 2008 on two exploration blocks in the Ogaden. American companies are also active in this volatile region. In August 2008, Titan Resources Corporation (owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt) announced that it had signed a twenty-five year production-sharing agreement with Ethiopia for the right to explore oil and gas in two blocks in the Ogaden basin and the Blue Nile basin in the north of the country and that it expected to invest as much as $60 million in the project.

China and India are also interested in acquiring access to uranium, copper, and other minerals. For example, Chinese and Indian firms are now exploring for uranium in Niger. In July 2007, Tuareg rebels kidnapped a Chinese executive of the China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation to protest Chinese operations in Niger and alleged Chinese arms sales to the government; he was later released unharmed. And in September 2008, China signed a deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo to loan $5 billion to rehabilitate the mining industry, construct railways and roads, and build hospitals and other infrastructure projects. In exchange, China will receive copper, cobalt, nickel, gold, and timber.

It is important to recognize that China, India, and other countries have other reasons for expanding their involvement in Africa besides economic self-interest. China and India have longstanding historic ties to Africa. They both have an ideological and political interest in contesting Western dominance of the global economic and political order and in countering American claims to hegemony based on its assertion that it is the “world’s only remaining superpower.” They both have a genuine interest in promoting economic development and social progress on the continent. They both hope to use their relationships with Africa to enhance their global status as great powers in their own right. And they both seek to reduce internal economic, political, and social conflicts by providing new opportunities in Africa for their corporations and their citizens.

It is also important to recognize that China and India do invest in projects besides resource extraction and that many of these projects can or may contribute significantly to the economic development of African countries. The Chinese investment plan for the DR Congo, for instance, includes the rehabilitation of the mining industry and the construction of major infrastructure projects including transportation and power production projects. China’s increasing willingness to fund these projects demonstrates that China has been sensitive to criticism of its initial focus on resource extraction and that China does respond to pressure for the reform of its investment practices in Africa.

2) The use of military programs—arms sales, military training programs, and other security assistance programs—by these countries as a means of pursuing these objectives and increasing their influence in Africa.

China has used military programs to strengthen the military capacities of key African allies and to expand its influence in oil-producing countries. Sudan has received F-6 and F-7 fighter aircraft, T-62 light tanks, anti-aircraft systems, trucks, and other weapons. Zimbabwe has received at least nine J-7 fighter aircraft, six K-8 trainer aircraft, 10 T-69 tanks, 30 T-59 tanks, and as many as 100 T-63 armored transport vehicles. Nigeria purchased 15 F-7 fighter aircraft from China in 2005 for a reported $251 million. Angola has ordered eight Su-77 fighter aircraft. China sold over $1 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry to Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000—including Su-77 fighter aircraft for Ethiopia—in violation of the U.N. arms embargo imposed during the bloody border war between the two countries. China has also supplied military equipment to Algeria, Zambia, Namibia, and Mauritania, including C-802 ship-to-ship missiles for Algeria as well as K-8 trainer aircraft for Zambia (which received eight) and Namibia (which received four).

In addition, Chinese military ties with the Nigerian government were significantly expanded in September 2004 when the Chinese arms producer Poly Technology announced that it would enter into a partnership with the government-owned Defense Industries Corporation of Nigeria (DICON) to modernize Nigeria’s domestic arms industry. After years of neglect, the Nigerian government wants to revive DICON and expects to resume production of small arms, grenades, ammunition, and other light weapons for the Nigerian military.

These actions have led to criticism of China’s role in Africa, particularly from “alarmists” in the United States who emphasize China’s ties with repressive regimes and its willingness to invest without imposing the types of conditions imposed by the World Bank and other international financial institutions or by Western governments. While these critiques are valid, China’s practices are not unique. The United States has used the same means to build ties with repressive African regimes—particularly in oil producing countries like Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea—and has noticeably reduced its pressures for democratization, respect for human rights, and financial transparency in recent years.

India has also begun to dramatically expand its military presence in Africa (particularly its naval presence) and also in the Indian Ocean, through which the oil tankers that carry nearly all of India’s oil imports—along with those of China, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, and other developed and developing industrial powers in Asia—must travel. India has announced that it intends to build up its naval forces in the Indian Ocean in order to protect the flow of oil and expects to acquire a fleet of modern aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines over the next decade. In addition to the purchase of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier in 2008 (see below), India also bought a refurbished American warship, the 17,000-ton amphibious transport dock U.S.S. Trenton.

India established a listening post in northern Madagascar in July 2007, which consists of a radar surveillance station equipped with a high-tech digital communications system and which is intended, at least in part, to monitor Chinese activities. In 2003, India signed a defense cooperation agreement with Seychelles; and, in 2006, it signed a defense agreement with Mozambique to provide arms and to conduct regular naval patrols off Mozambique’s coast. According to a recent report by Chatham House, India new military policy toward Africa is motivated, to a certain extent, by “concerns about Chinese expansionism” and “this shift in policy comes in part because of India’s desire to compete with China’s growing influence in the region.”

3) The re-emergence of Russia as a major power in Africa with regard to both energy supplies and security issues and its impact.

While considerable attention has been paid to the emerging role of China, India, and other new powers in Africa, far less notice has been taken of the re-emergence of Russia as a significant power in Africa. Russia essentially withdrew from Africa at the end of the Cold War, but under President Putin and the new administration headed by President Medvedev, Russia has undertaken major new initiatives in Africa.

In September 2008, Russia’s state natural gas company, Gazprom, signed a memorandum of understanding with the state-owned Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation for oil and gas exploration, production, and transportation, processing of gas, and construction of power plants in Nigeria; Gazprom expects to spend between $1 billion and $2.5 billion on these projects in the coming years.

Earlier this year, Russia held preliminary talks with Nigeria about a multi-million dollar pipeline that will run for 2,850 miles (4,128 kilometers) across the Sahara and will be used to transport Nigerian gas across Niger and Algeria to Algerian export terminals for deliver to Europe by way of Spain. The proposed deal is expected to cost $10 billion for the pipeline and $3 billion for other installations, and will be capable of delivering up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe annually.

During then-President Putin’s visit to Libya in April 2008, the two countries signed deals on energy cooperation, military assistance, and construction of a 310-mile (500-kilometer) railway line between Sirte and Benghazi. The railway line is expected to cost $3.8 billion. Gazprom plans large-scale exploration and production projects in cooperation with Libya’s national energy company, including the construction of liquified natural gas installations and gas-fired electricity plants in Libya. Russia has also cancelled Libya’s $4.5 billion debt for arms purchases from the Soviet Union and announced plans to sell Libya $3 billion worth of new weaponry, including fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and submarines.

In March 2006, Russia signed a $8 billion deal with Algeria to cancel that country’s debt for past arms sales in exchange for a commitment to buy Russian military equipment, including 32 MiG-29 SMT fighter aircraft, 28 Su-30MK fighter aircraft, 16 Yak-130 trainer aircraft, four S-300PMU2 anti-aircraft systems, 38 Pantsir-S1 air defense missile-and-gun systems, 185 T-90S tanks, and 216 Komet-E anti-tank missiles. In March 2008, Algeria announced that it intended to return the 12 MiG-29s delivered the previous year to Russia because they did not meet Algeria’s technical expectations and it is still unclear exactly what aircraft Russia will deliver in the future to complete the contract. Deliveries of the Yak-130 trainer aircraft to Algeria are expected to begin in January 2009.

As mentioned above, in 2008, Russia signed an agreement with India to sell the surplus aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov to India. Russia is currently refurbishing the warship (which will be renamed the Vikramadtiya) and expects to deliver it to India sometime after 2011, along with MiG-29 aircraft and Ka-27 Helix-A and Ka-31 Helix-B anti-submarine helicopters.

4) The response of the United States and European powers to the activities of these new (and re-emerging) actors in Africa and to the challenges posed by their activities.

Most foreign policymakers in Washington—including leading members of the Bush administration—remain convinced that China’s actions in Africa do not threaten vital U.S. national security interests and that the United States and China can cooperate in developing the continent’s natural resources in a way that is mutually beneficial. But a growing and increasingly vocal group of legislators, and influential think tanks insist that China has become a strategic global rival to the United States and that its actions—especially in Africa—represent a direct challenge to the United States.

These “alarmists” point to the considerable resources that China is devoting to Africa and to the engagement of Chinese officials at the highest level—including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, both of who have made tours of the continent and have hosted high-level meetings in Beijing with African heads of state—as evidence of a “grand strategy” on the part of China that jeopardizes vital U.S. national security interests and that is aimed, ultimately, at usurping the West’s position on the continent. “Amidst all of this hoopla over China’s rapidly growing economy, there is a dark side to [that] country’s economic expansion,” Representative Christopher Smith (Republican of New Jersey) told the House International Relations Committee hearing on “China’s Influence in Africa” in July 2005. “China is playing an increasingly influential role on the continent of Africa, and there is concern that the Chinese intend to aid and abet African dictators, gain a stranglehold on precious African natural resources, and undo much of the progress that has been made on democracy and governance in the last 15 years in African nations.”

Although the “non-alarmist” view of China continues to guide U.S. policy toward Africa, the Bush administration has pursued a strategy in Africa that relies on the use of military force to protect U.S. interests on the continent—particularly its interest in free flow of African oil to world markets—and to counter the growing involvement of potential global competitors—and in particular the one country that could realistically become a rival global peer, i.e. China—in Africa. Based on this strategy, the Bush administration has radically increased U.S. military activities in Africa and, in February 2006, announced that it would create a new U.S. military command for Africa—Africa Command or Africom—to oversee America’s growing military presence on the continent. While the principal missions of Africom will be to protect access to strategic raw materials in Africa and to make the continent a major front in the Global War on Terrorism, the creation of Africom should also be seen in part as one element of a broad effort by the Bush administration to develop a “grand strategy” of its own that will contain China’s efforts. It should also be understood as a measure that is intended to demonstrate to Beijing that Washington will match China’s actions, thus serving as a warning to the Chinese leadership that they should restrain themselves or face possible consequences to their relationship with America as well as to their interests in Africa.

So what will Africa actually do? When Africom becomes fully operational in October it will take over the implementation of a wide range of ongoing military, security cooperation, and security assistance programs that have already led to a series of U.S. air raids on Somalia as well as the establishment of a new U.S. military base in Africa—located at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti—and a vastly enlarged U.S. naval presence, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea. The Bush administration has also dramatically increased funding for U.S. arms sales to Africa and created a host of new programs to provide weaponry and military training to African allies. Over the past seven years, the value of U.S. security assistance to Africa has risen from about $100 million each year to an annual level of approximately $800 million. The Pentagon would like to avoid direct military intervention in Africa whenever possible, preferring to bolster the internal security capabilities of its African friends and to build up the military forces of key states that can act as surrogates for the United States. But it is also preparing for the day when a disruption of oil supplies or some other crisis will lead to further direct military intervention. The Bush administration has substantially increased the size and frequency of U.S. military exercises in Africa and negotiated agreements to gain access to local military bases in a number of African countries, including Algeria, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Tunisia, Namibia, Sao Tome, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia.

5) The implications of these developments for African security, political reform, and economic development. What are the benefits and liabilities for Africa of the emergence of new players and of growing competition?

–Allows African governments to play off China, India, and Russia against the US and Europe

–Provides new sources of development assistance

–Provides new markets for African energy and other raw materials

–Undermines African producers of textiles and other goods

–Exacerbates internal domestic political conflict

–Bolsters repressive and undemocratic regimes in Africa that violate human rights and encourages use of force to maintain regimes in power

–Makes Africa more of a battlefield in the global competition between the US, Europe, China, India, and Russia

About the Author
*Director African Security Research Project, Washington, DC USA

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