ISS: In the game of maritime power politicking, is Africa the biggest loser?


Diminutive Djibouti seems set to become dangerously overcrowded: not with immigrants, or a harmful animal species, but rather with foreign military bases.

Already home to Camp Lemonnier, the United States of America’s (USA’s) only African base, it was widely reported earlier this year that China intends to join the USA, France and Japan in establishing a permanent military presence there.

This spurred discussions on how such a move might be seen as part of a Chinese maritime strategy that aims to challenge the relative power of the USA and India. Few analysts, however, have assessed these developments against the backdrop of Africa’s own maritime goals and strategies.

This raises important questions. How serious are African states about implementing existing maritime strategies, or building the capacity needed to secure their maritime domains? And how do major global powers regard African maritime efforts? Do they intend to partner with Africa in a ‘win-win’ manner that would contribute to greater common maritime security?

In June, Reuters reported that China’s Defense Ministry declined to confirm reports of a planned military base. Spokesman Yang Yujun merely said: ‘Maintaining regional peace and stability accords with all countries’ interests, and is the joint desire of China, Djibouti and all other countries. China is willing to, and ought to, make more contributions in this regard.’ What might this contribution be? That is still unclear, but despite limited evidence, it was swiftly speculated that China has grandiose geo-strategic intentions to dominate the seas around Africa.

A naval base in Djibouti could form part of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative, which aims to increase African and Asian prosperity by improving oceanic trade links. Speculation over Chinese ambitions in the Atlantic Ocean – and towards Africa in general – was also triggered last year following reports of a possible naval base in Namibia.

There is an unfortunate tendency among some commentators to frame China-Africa relations in a zero-sum manner, where China is either a friend and partner, or a possible neo-colonial foe. This is a way of seeing international relations as a great strategic, chess-like game, where global powers position themselves geographically to maximise their power and protect their interests.

This can occur at the expense of other players, including African countries. As with the board game, Risk, players seek to out-manoeuvre each other and use Africa as a slate open for global conquest. Control of the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb strait – or the ability to deny that control to others – means influence over one of the most important trade routes. It is also a way of outflanking competitors as a sure route to increased global power.

In this framing, Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean are described as a ‘string of pearls’. This US-coined concept implies that Chinese maritime infrastructure and port investments are intended to establish control over the Indian Ocean region, as these investments turn into strategically located bases that could outflank India, the USA and other rivals.

While this view might be tempting for its simplicity, it is also dangerous. The ‘string of pearls’ idea suggests that China alone is strategically positioning itself while other countries operating there, such as France or Japan, are not subjected to a similar critique.

The success of Africa’s maritime future lies in coordinated, integrated actions and policies for combined and joint projects, which should improve collective and common security. However, reference is seldom made to the important strategic goals and visions of African stakeholders – whether at the African Union (AU), regional economic community, or national level – in analyses of moves by powers such as China and the USA.

There is struggle enough to create cooperation and integration at inter-agency levels. Competing national interests could come into play at the expense of regional and continental interests. These goals, including African-initiated and -led safety and security for all – as outlined in within Agenda 2063 and the AU Commission’s 2014-2017 strategic plan – could be neglected or marginalised by foreign powers. For such states, projecting their own power might be seen as a better guarantee of maritime security than waiting for regional states to acquire the capacity and capability needed to realise Africa’s own maritime goals.

Nevertheless, if countries perceive others to be positioning themselves in hostile ways, the potential exists that each would increase its military strength. This could result in a ‘security dilemma’ where, in theory, if one state were to increase its military strength, other states would have reason to match it – or be stronger.

The worst-case scenario, which is usually favoured for discussion, would be an arms race and potential conflict. This is by no means inevitable, however, as there are common interests in secure seas and shipping. Navies could also play a mitigating role, as they are well suited to engage in diplomacy.

The effect of foreign powers’ engagement in African maritime security should not be seen only from a military perspective. Many African states, for example, seek to have navies or coastguards, but do not see these as war-fighting instruments alone. Africa prioritises threats that affect basic human security – such as how illegal fishing imperils the future food security of millions of Africans.

Sadly, the rest of the world’s indifference towards Africa’s maritime strategic interests remains conspicuous. Africa is often seen as a nothing but strategic blank space. While maritime security around Africa may be a subject for global discussion, African stakeholders and actors seldom feature in analyses and are often seen as little more than passive actors; or Africa as an object for powers to use at their will.

Djibouti’s national interest in hosting so many bases must also be interrogated, and whether its interests can be coordinated with those of neighbouring states should also be assessed. Such an evaluation is further required at the AU level where, for example, its 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIMS) makes scant reference to foreign navies, talking instead of relevant ‘partners’ and ‘stakeholders’. A deeper interrogation of how African navies will benefit from the potential partnerships on offer is needed.

The absence of an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) maritime strategy until 2015 also left a strategic vacuum for great powers to exploit by engaging in bilateral deals and potentially fuelling divisions, instead of improving coordination. The recently drafted IGAD Integrated Maritime Safety and Security Strategy (2030), once adopted and implemented, is therefore very welcome. The absence of a regional framework to align foreign interaction with regional interests has, however, meant that great power competition remains prominent.

When assessing how best to improve African maritime security, developments in Djibouti point to the need to increase the focus on African countries’ naval partners, evaluating their intentions and asking how they might support Africa’s own maritime strategies. Doing so will help, in part, to stop Africa from becoming the ultimate loser in a maritime game of power politicking.

Written by Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.