Reports of the imminent establishment of China’s first military base in Africa to be located near Zimbabwe’s diamond mining region circulated in March 2014. More than a year later, China’s military ambitions with President Robert Mugabe’s government may be satisfied with just a military academy which Beijing has established in Harare. This “National Defence University” is staffed in part by instructors from China and Pakistan. The Chinese military base appears to be put on hold, and a more likely location for China’s military presence in Southern Africa is Namibia. Landlocked Zimbabwe cannot berth either Chinese or Russian navies, and in May 2015, plans were announced further up the coast in Djibouti that China will indeed build its first African military base there.
Mugabe wants particular objectives to be met by China and Russia. Neither Asian ally feels any compulsion to oblige, and instead will pursue its own interests which, while not giving Mugabe what he wants, is a way to restore Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector that his policies have effectively destroyed and will bring some income and jobs to the indigent country. Mugabe’s trip to Beijing in August 2014 was seen as a trip of supplication by international observers and his trip to Moscow in May 2015 was seen in the same light. Like Egypt’s strongman Gamel Nasser in the 1950s, who turned to Russia for aid when the US refused to build his Aswan dam, Mugabe sought to play East against West in reaction to Western sanctions imposed against his regime. China and Russia were happy to have an ally in their camp, even if he is a supplicant. Mugabe was supported by the Chinese in the War of Independence against Rhodesia, as the country was known during its pre-1980 period of colonial rule, and Beijing has been an honoured ally since.
Russia’s influence in Africa has been marginal in the 21st century. Moscow’s declining economy has limited its ability to lavish the amount of aid and loan largesse that Beijing bestows on Djibouti, Namibia, Zimbabwe and other countries deemed useful. China’s business investment in Africa is huge and, like a vacuum effectively, sucks up natural resources for use domestically. Consequently, a military component located in Africa to safeguard China’s investments makes strategic sense. Russia has no comparable investments and lacks the necessity of military security. Putin’s crony government is delighted to embrace Mugabe’s crony government with the latter’s anti-Western rhetoric and pre-modern homophobia. In response, the West shrugs, observing the alliance as akin to organised crime families making deals together; birds of a feather flocking together. In practical terms, nothing will come from this alliance for the citizens of either country. Profits from a planned Russian platinum mine in Zimbabwe will be largely enjoyed by the nations’ respective leaderships. The interests of the people of Russia are not bettered by any African adventures by the Kremlin. Nor are the people of Zimbabwe likely to see the type of aid and investment from Moscow they have received from Beijing, although such Chinese investments have also benefited Zimbabwe’s elites.
Mugabe and Putin: Kindred autocratic spirits
In Putin, Mugabe finds a kindred autocrat with whom to identify. However, in Putin, Mugabe will not find the financial benefactor he seeks. Both rulers can sympathise with one another on the subject of international sanctions imposed upon their countries. Russia’s economy is contracting because of sanctions in force after Putin shredded international law by annexing the Crimea in 2014. Zimbabweans suffered sanctions after Mugabe transformed the democratic promise of Zimbabwe shown in 1980 into an ipso facto dictatorship in 2002. However, sanctions against the Mugabe regime were lesser reasons than the regime’s maladroit economic policies to account for Zimbabwe’s ruined economy, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts will worsen in 2015. Sanctions are biting Russia’s economy more, and combined with falling prices of the primary Russian export, oil, the Kremlin treasury is in no position to bail out Mugabe, a man whom Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, last September described as “an African legend and historic figure.” Fulsome praise comes inexpensively, unlike foreign aid or business investment.
Hat in hand, Mugabe attended a World War II commemorative celebration in Moscow on 2 May 2015 that was highlighted by a display of military hardware and nuclear weapons trundled through the streets as in Cold War Days. The comparison is apt, because Mugabe’s relationship with Russia, based on anti-Western animus, seems like a Cold War throwback. Mugabe wants Russia to invest in Zimbabwe’s moribund agricultural sector, just as China invests heavily in agricultural production in Africa in order to export the resulting crops to feed the Chinese masses. However, Russia’s domestic agricultural production is more or less sufficient to meet domestic needs. Moscow, therefore, has no pressing need to invest in African agriculture at present and cannot afford the luxury of securing via 99-year leases cultivatable land for use in the future when rising populations and uncertain world food supplies will make such an investment profitable and even essential.
After bouncing back slightly from economic collapse throughout much of the 2000s, Zimbabwe’s trade has stagnated again in recent years.
Data source: ‘European Union, Trade in Goods with Zimbabwe’, European Commission, April 2015
Instead, Russia is duplicating what the West and indeed all outside forces throughout history, be they conquerors, colonialists or business investors, have largely taken from Africa: raw materials. Mugabe, who needs any type of foreign investment he can get, is in no position to haggle. As a result, Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov, during his September 2014 trip to Zimbabwe, let it be known that his country will build a US$ 3 billion platinum mine in Zimbabwe. Mugabe wants Russian help to feed his people, and Russia wants what all outsiders want, valuable minerals, in this case – platinum. Russia will obtain what it seeks and ownership of the mine, which under Mugabe law must be 51% Zimbabwean - but may just as well be Russia’s regardless of local majority shareholding requirements. Mining is a profitable venture for corrupt governments, and the corruption of the Mugabe administration is one reason Western sanctions were imposed upon his regime. As they are currently doing with other national assets and business ventures, including farms whose confiscation from their owners triggered the collapse of the agricultural sector, Mugabe’s cronies will benefit financially from the Russian platinum mine. Such arrangements for Zimbabwe’s oligarchy take the sting out of Harare’s inability to get what it wants out of Moscow.
However, as Russia doubtless knows, there is no permanency to any relationship with a leader who is 91 years old and who has no credible successor. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has been purged of challengers who might seek to prematurely retire the president before his President-for-Life status comes to a natural end via mortality, while protégés who might inherit the throne have never been groomed by a leader who considers himself unique and irreplaceable.
China in Zimbabwe, a relationship profitable to a cautious Beijing
China understands the likelihood of governmental change upon Mugabe’s demise. A military base is too expensive and long-term as an investment to tie to a relationship with any one individual in an unstable country. It is then little wonder that ground has not been broken and reports circulated in November 2014 and again in May 2015 that Walvis Bay in Namibia, on the opposite side of the African subcontinent on the Atlantic Coast, is likely to host a Chinese naval base.
Geographically, if China wishes to protect its interests in Africa, and in the case of a Namibian base, also exert influence over key shipping routes around the Cape of Good Hope, then its military must be physically based in Africa. Since the establishment of the US Africa Command (Africom) in 2007, America’s 9th unified combatant command has been based not on African soil but in Stuttgart, Germany. Troops and military hardware can be transported as effectively by air from Europe into Africa as from a base in Africa. China, however, has no European or Middle-Eastern allies on whose soil it can build a military base. Despite the instability of African countries and the unpredictability of African governments, China has no other option but to create strategic alliances that permit Beijing to build military bases, in Namibia to Africa’s west if this comes to pass and in Djibouti to the east.
These strategic alliances have been bought and paid for. In 2014, China became Africa’s largest trading partner, accounting for more trade than the European Union (EU) and the US, amounting to US$ 160 billion. China invested US$ 40 billion in various African enterprises in 2014, and this figure will be surpassed in 2015. All African nations desire investment and China is lauded by governments and the African media as a sort of investment saviour. Of course, none of this investment has ever reflected anything other than China’s calculated self-interest. From activities legal and illegal, the latter, including the smuggling of Mozambique’s hardwood forests and Kenya’s elephant tusks, all that is traded or smuggled is designed to meet Chinese demand. In the process, a two-edged sword is created: investment creates the goodwill that allows an expanded Chinese military presence on the continent, particularly when it is presented in pedagogic terms such as Zimbabwe’s National Defence University, and investment creates a need to protect Chinese interests that requires a military presence.
It should be noted that the type of security China seeks is protection of its nationals in Africa; an ever growing number as China’s investments multiply. There is a military need to evacuate Chinese nationals if conflict endangers them at their respective locations, but the days of imperial powers have passed and China like Western nations seems to not have any interest in taking up the position of an overlord on African territory. For one thing, today African territory is purchased or leased from willing government sellers on terms that extend into the next century. Superpowers do have their allies in Africa. China and Russia have Zimbabwe as an ally that provides ineffectual but nonetheless appreciated anti-Western rhetoric but an ally that also possesses very real platinum. After seeing Mugabe in Moscow the first week in May, Putin also played the role of flattering host to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. South Africa is a Western ally and despite being a member of the developmental and trade alliance BRICS (named for member states Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), the country is in the Western camp. Putin reminded Zuma that South Africa is Russia’s largest trading partner in Africa. However, Russia is not amongst South Africa’s top trading partners. China is; and Beijing also engages in educational exchanges and other forms of soft diplomacy in South Africa. South Africa’s other key trading partners are Germany, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US, on which South Africa’s auto export industry depends.
Government-to-government versus people-to-people relations
Autocratic and totalitarian governments prefer to deal with other government chiefs, and assume those leaders will make their nations’ people accept whatever deals are made on high, including the establishment of a foreign military presence on the people’s soil.
What will ultimately hobble Chinese-African relations is that the Chinese, like the Russians, have been shown – in public opinion polling and by rather widespread anecdotal evidence – to have little liking or respect for Africans. Cultural isolation is largely responsible for such antipathy. China and Russia trained Africans to carry out their proxy wars against the West during the Cold War of the 1950s through the early 1990s. Such activities involved Africans sent to Chinese and Russian military academies and installations, the way African foreign exchange students were and still are largely segregated in academic environments away from the Chinese and Russian peoples. In terms of ordinary Chinese and Russians, both Chinese and Russian societies, physically distant from Africa and having no historic links to the continent, have had no interaction with the African people. A strain of ethnic elitism exists in both these countries, allowing the Chinese and Russians to accept derogatory racial stereotypes of Africans. Arguably, peoples who have had no substantial intercourse with Africans might just as well accept positive images of Africans. However, the average Chinese or Russian, again according to their tastes expressed in polling, prefer to demonise Africans, most likely because of a cultural xenophobia. Africans are sensitive to prejudice, and such attitudes do not auger well for bilateral relations.
By contrast, Americans may offend Africans with patronising attitudes, but on the whole Americans adore Africans – celebrating African culture in American museums, American music and on African-American holidays, employing African actors in Hollywood productions, and visiting Africa as Peace Corp volunteers and tourists. Washington’s foreign policy is largely despised by Africans, but humanitarian initiatives like the President’s Emergency Plan on AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the trade initiative, the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), are widely known and appreciated, and American popular culture is venerated. Africans also note that while the US’s dreaded Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may be involved in insidious covert operations in their opinion and America engages in wars by proxy, the US hasn’t invaded and taken over a country for territorial gain the way Russia did only last year, in the Crimea in 2014.
Any military relationship between China and Africa often depends on pliable autocrats like Mugabe who have no one to whom they must answer. China and Russia must therefore expand their circle of African friends. Despite business investment and any future military presence in Africa, China and Russia will not pry Africa from its relationship with the West unless Russians and Chinese respect and accept Africans as equals on a human basis.
The African majority will not benefit from military bases, other than those Africans employed in non-military functions at these bases. Zimbabweans will no more benefit from Russia’s platinum mine than Nigerians in the east of their country benefit from Nigeria’s oil wealth. Alienation of people from the wealth of their natural resources is a common basis for conflict in Africa. China and Russia have thus far avoided such conflict thanks to partnerships with African leaderships who prioritise their own fortunes over the welfare of their people, such as undemocratic or marginally democratic countries like Djibouti and Zimbabwe. The danger for China and Russia arises when such regimes collapse, which in an increasingly democratising Africa is to be expected.
Written by Sandile Lukhele, an analyst for ACM and author of political and social commentary for African and international publications.
This article is extracted from the June 2015 edition of CAI’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) –. The essential +/- 85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.
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