For its third event of "The View from" Series, Ilas Touazi from University of Sétif 2 and Michele Tallarini, ITSS Verona, Africa Team, discuss US-China competition in Africa, touching upon regional dynamics, trade, BRI, questions of debt, and Chinese military presence in the continent.
Since 2019, Sri Lanka has been experiencing its worst economic crisis. Unprecedented levels of inflation, the near depletion of foreign exchange reserves, the rising prices of basic commodities, daily blackouts lasting ten to thirteen hours, and shortages of medical supplies plague the already poor nation. Sri Lanka’s population of almost 22 million people now waits in nearly endless lines for basic amenities. Schools have been suspended because of the lack of equipment and businesses shut down because of the lack of petrol needed for commuters and the transportation of goods.
Declared the "worst economic crisis for Sri Lanka in 73 years" by the Sri Lankan Government, the country now finds itself embroiled in protests and steadily increasing violence. Protesters place blame on president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's government, whom they accuse of mismanaging the economy. The Rajapaksa are Sri Lanka's most influential family, a political dynasty, prominent in several senior roles in the Sri Lankan State. Protesters demand that Rajapaksa and his family step down, hoping to pave the way for new democratic leaders.
Understanding Sri Lanka's turmoil and the regional fallout are vital to understanding the current state of South Asian security and diplomacy. There are several reasons for Sri Lanka's current unrest, ranging from president Rajapaksa's tax cuts, Sri Lanka's significant foreign debt, the ongoing agricultural crisis, and the tourism fallout over the 2019 Easter bombings and COVID-19. Finally, Sri Lanka's second-largest market for tea exports, Russia, has been ostracized by the international community in the wake of their invasion of Ukraine. Sri Lanka depends heavily on tea exports, with 17% of its economy relying on it completely.
Sri Lanka has already given up a port to the Chinese ambition. Under pressure from China regarding debts, Sri Lanka coughed up the Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres of land surrounding it. China now controls a piece of territory just off the shores of its main regional rival, India. China's ambition in Sri Lanka does not stop there. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has invested $1.4 billion in the Colombo Port City project, the largest ever foreign investment in Sri Lanka's history.
China has utilized the BRI as a form of neo-colonialism, using it to debt-trap poorer countries while exploiting those same countries for their raw resources and control over the infrastructure. With the presence of China in Sri Lanka already, and the current economic crisis, the Chinese are poised to take advantage of the situation by further exploiting the poorer island nation.
Sri Lankan Islamist Extremism
Easter Sunday, three years ago, three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist attacks carried out by the National Tawahujja Jama'ath (NTJ). The attack killed 269 people, injuring at least 500 others. NTJ is believed to have connections to the Islamic State (ISIL). Terrorism in Sri Lanka has existed for some time. Organisations such as the Tamil Tigers and various Marxist-Leninist parties have carried out attacks in the past. Islamist terrorism began to rise in the 2010s, with a steep rise in attacks against the country's small Roman Catholic minority. These attacks eventually culminated in the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings.
Studies have shown that there is a connection between poverty, economic minority discrimination, and domestic terrorism. The ongoing economic crisis will exacerbate the divide between the Muslim and Christian minorities and the Buddhist majority. With the crisis worsening, Sri Lanka can expect a dramatic rise in Islamic terrorist attacks from well-trained, ISIL-affiliated organisations like the NTJ.
This rise in terrorism is not just a domestic issue either. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have seen their shared maritime border exploited by Islamist terrorists seeking to supplement conflict zones in Southeast Asia with foreign fighters. The Philippines' large Islamist problem has crossed the maritime borders and is beginning to affect its neighbours. Sri Lanka shares a maritime border with Maldives and India, two countries that could face the fallout of rising Islamic terrorism within Sri Lanka. As the economic crisis continues, and Sri Lanka finds itself unable to support its military and police structures, terrorists and criminals will leak through the porous borders.
In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the economic downward spiral of a small country can still have a great effect on the world at large. For South Asia, Sri Lanka's crisis can be a catalyst for significant shifts in the area's power structure, a rise in terrorism, and the opportunity for powerful countries to gain a further foothold in the region. This article has highlighted some of the ways Sri Lanka's ongoing crisis could do significant damage to South Asia, but there are undoubtedly other issues, such as international criminal organisations, which were not addressed. If you'd like to learn more about security concerns in South Asia and elsewhere, click here to view more of ITSS Verona's articles.
China’s influence in Africa is becoming increasingly deep. 2021 saw a bilateral trade between Beijing and the African continent of 254 billion dollars, with a 35% growth compared to the previous year. Given these findings, China is Africa’s largest trading partner for the twelfth consecutive year.
Over the last decade, Beijing has replaced “classical” colonial powers thanks to a new paradigm which privileges trading, infrastructural investments and non-interference in the home affairs of the countries with whom it cooperates. This success can be attributed not only to the fact that China has not been a colonial power, but also to a precise strategy pursued by its government, which is based on specific principles. One of the most important of these is financial support: from 2007 to 2020 Chinese development banks provided more funding than all other foreign financial institutions put together. The second point is the aforementioned neutrality in Africa’s countries home affairs, with no political interference, in contrast to the classical Western multilateral approach. This does not mean that Beijing does not show its soft power, but it prefers a strictly economic type of support, with no assistance, for instance, in the development of new democratic institutions or interventions in African political crises. Another important point is the “raw material for infrastructures” policy, which allows China to pay for African goods (mainly natural resources) by building new strategic onsite facilities (bridges, roads, railways etc.).
Given this strategic approach, African governments see China as a reliable partner and the main interlocutor for their economic development. The recent opposition of several African countries on the condemnation of Russian invasion of Ukraine at the UN General Assembly (17 abstained, following China and India, 8 were absent and 1 vote against), underlines the strong political connection which links the Beijing government and Africa, pushing African leaders to pursue Chinese interests in the international arena. This connection is bilateral but not equal: China, as a global superpower, extends its political influence by leveraging African countries’ debts. In particular, failure on their part to return money granted to them by China for the construction of strategic infrastructure may lead to repossession of that infrastructure by Beijing. Main examples are the Djiboutian port of Doraleh or the Mombasa port, used as collateral for the building of the Mombasa-Nairobi railway.
Chinese military presence in Africa: is this the beginning of a new framework?
As well as stronger financial and political intervention, in the last few years Beijing has intensified its military presence and cooperation. This engagement runs through the UN peacekeeping missions, which see a high presence of Chinese soldiers. This engagement aims to give China the chance to improve the expertise of its soldiers in operational contexts and to establish its presence in the continent.
At the moment, Beijing has a military base in Djibouti operated by the Chinese People's Army Navy (PLAN). The African country is an important hub for the control of worldwide trade: located in the Horn of Africa at the intersection of important shipping routes such as Bab-el-Mandeb and the Aden Gulf, which is the entry point for the Suez Canal, where 30% of global maritime trade takes place. Because of its strategic importance, the country hosts several military bases, notably the US, France, Italy, Spain and Saudi Arabia. The Chinese base hosts 2000 soldiers.
Endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Djibouti base was inaugurated in 2017 and tasked with peacekeeping operations (PKO) and convoy duty. Regardless of the official purpose of the base, its size and the onsite facilities set out its possible role as a starting point for future military expansion in the African continent, with the creation of new bases in other countries. U.S. Gen. Stepen Townsend referred to it, in an interview with The Associated Press: “They have arms and munitions for sure. They have armoured combat vehicles. We think they will soon be basing helicopters there to potentially include attack helicopters.” Moreover, the above-mentioned multipurpose port of Doraleh, built by China and located near the base has been strategically important for it. Again, Chinese military expansion would appear to go hand in hand with the spread of its commerce and investments, following the routes of the “Maritime Silk Road” and taking advantage of facilities built and controlled for cooperation purposes.
It is plausible that Beijing will reproduce the “Djibouti base model” in other African countries, following the same steps and dynamics. In this regard, the recent agreement between Chinese and Tanzanian governments for the extension of the Bagamoyo port (75 km north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) could be the first stage of further military expansion. The seaport could give Beijing the chance to reinforce its presence in the region and act as a centre for ship repair. Moreover, a new base in the Indian Ocean could help resolve Chinese dependence on the Malacca Strait.
Between money and weapons: the end of Chinese soft power?
As we’ve seen, recent Chinese expansion in Africa seems to lead to an increasingly strong military presence in the continent. This new framework set up by Beijing, which combines investments, the building of new infrastructure, huge lending and limited political interference in African countries’ home affairs could be the forerunner for further military expansion. In the near future it is possible that China will decide to increase its presence in areas interested by The Belt and Road Initiative, in order to protect its own business through a greater control of the territory.
At the same time, the setting up of new military bases in key locations, especially on Indian Ocean coasts, will allow China to improve the strategic capabilities of its naval forces. It is hard to say if it is the beginning of a stronger approach: as seen, one of the main principles which drives Chinese interventions in Africa is the non-interference in the home affairs of local governments. Moreover, from the African countries point of view, Chinese interest, and new investments onsite, could represent a chance to develop their own economies, modernise their infrastructures and build new strategic facilities. Maybe this framework will not be overturned, but it is clear that Beijing aspires to a deeper and more active presence, underlining the importance of Africa in its global strategy.
Giulia Pompili discusses South Asian security perspectives. Giulia Pompili is a journalist and author. She currently sits on the South Asia desk at Il Foglio and writes the South Asian newsletter, Katane. She is also the author of Sotto lo stesso cielo, a book on the relationships between Beijing, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo.
In this session, Giulia Pompili discusses Australia & New Zealand's place in the US-China tensions over Taiwan, Japan's perspective on the BRI, Secretary Blinkin's visit to Indonesia, and the US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Prof. Valbona Zeneli (George C. Marshall Center) discusses the current state of the Belt and Road Initiative, analysing European perceived security and economic threats, opportunities, and scenarios vis-à-vis China.