Masked motives in China's anti-piracy push By Bright B Simons
ACCRA, Ghana - Chinese Rear Admiral Du Jingchen's Lushan naval contingent is
settling into the Gulf of Aden, where its objective is ostensibly to secure the
shipping lanes straddling the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean as part,
presumably, of an international effort to sustain vital commerce in an
important corridor of world trade.
Some analysts, however, are drawing broader inferences from this new
development, viewing it in the light of China's relative inactivity in the
regional effort to combat piracy across the Pacific, in the Malacca Strait, the
Mekong Delta and elsewhere.
A new lens is being trained on China's actions, one that is preset
to reveal previously under-highlighted links to the withdrawal of Ethiopian
troops from Somalia (recall that the first public statement of the naval
deployment came during a Chinese donation of a reported US$400 million to
Uganda for peacekeeping operations in Somalia), the security of the Sudanese
oil crescent, the latent Eritrean terror connection, and above all America's
late but conclusive movement to the view of the Horn of Africa as a
geostrategic shelf of the post-September 11, 2001, world.
To the last point one must hasten to add in clarification that the United
States has always considered the Horn of Africa in somewhat idiosyncratic
terms, which is certainly why the region, together with Egypt, was placed under
the charge of US Central Command, while the rest of continental Africa endured
the benign neglect of the US European Command.
And since at least 2002, when the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa
(CJTF-HOA) was established, the principle has been to consider the Horn of
Africa as contiguous with the Middle East in the assessment of operational
options. But there is no doubting the growing clarity within the corridors of
power in Washington of the importance of that idiosyncrasy as a factor in the
new conception of inter-regional security in which the Middle East is merely at
the core of a "global concentricity of risk".
In the same vein, China's posture in the Horn of Africa since the 1970s
demonstrates a longstanding appreciation of the aforementioned fusion of Horn
of Africa-Gulf area geopolitical dynamics. Middle Eastern and Arab Gulf
countries have consistently armed and supported the Islamist cause in the Horn
by supplying Eritrean separatists, helping Somalia back Ogaden nationalists in
Ethiopia and providing diplomatic leverage to Sudanese hardliners whenever the
latter have had to confront growing Western and local "bourgeois" pressure, not
even to mention the Mombasa/Zanzibar sort of Arab engagement with Africa's
evolving inter-religious mosaic. Not once did China waver in its commitment to
Declassified files of the US diplomatic/espionage outpost in Asmara, Eritrea,
depict a fascinating level of Chinese activity during the 1970s, especially
around the period when political and inter-ethnic strife succeeded in ripping
Eritrea from Ethiopia. In the decade that followed, China eventually displaced
both the Soviet Union and the US in another high-activity zone in the region,
During the last years of the regime of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre,
Beijing was virtually the strongman's only trusted geopolitical handler. Even
then China had perfected the formula of arms for natural resources. In exchange
for the right to trawl in Somalia's seas, the People's Liberation Army (PLA)
set about the task of crafting an air force for the increasingly beleaguered
Barre, who was ousted in 1991.
It is intriguing how the pattern continues, even as the individual pieces alter
in shape, position and direction.
In June of last year, police in the breakaway region of Somaliland in Northern
Somalia made an arrest that suggests strongly that Chinese operatives of
uncertain affiliation were working with Yemenis in shadowy activities that may
involve espionage-related gun-running.
There have similarly been reports of a Chinese presence through Eritrean
proxies in peace-building operations in the Eastern Sudan with the obvious aim
of securing the 1,500-kilometer oil pipe that feeds Sudan's oil through the Red
Sea into Chinese chimneys in Guangdong. (Contrast this with the US's persistent
condemnation of Eritrean elements of fueling the Islamist insurrection in
Somalia, and its dismissive attitude towards engagement with the Asmara elite.)
Unconfirmed reports also suggest a major expansion of Chinese installations in
another Red Sea state, Djibouti, even as tensions between the latter and
brigand elements in Somalia rise.
Incidents of this sort are even more interesting because, for several years
now, PLA-dominated "multinationals" like Norinco and the Poly Group have been
sharpening the capacity of Beijing to match the flair the West once showed in
intermixing commerce, investment, arms trading and influence-peddling to
minimize the scope for nationalist repercussions (the Horn of Africa receives
roughly 70% of China's direct investment into Africa).
Norinco for instance has grown adept at using its more innocuous operations to
mask its core interest in arms commerce by initiating civil joint ventures in
Ethiopia, Kenya and even, as the above incident illustrates, in the
highest-risk environments where Chinese interests require the direct reshaping
of local realities.
Indeed, only in this latter sense does China's persistence in considering
investments in Puntland, Somaliland and elsewhere in Greater Somalia make sense
- that is it involves a willingness, if need be, to engage in "localized
The phrase, "localized strategic combat" is inherently related to "global
concentricity of risk". By "strategic combat", the reference is to a concept of
great power competition in which persistent escalation of the stakes of
conflict occurs in tandem with an indefinite postponement of actual armed
The battle defines the war in a long drawn-out process in which the great
powers, in this case China and the US, contend for the spoils of war without
concluding the battle. Rather than a series of skirmishes with alternating
victors, strategic combat consists in continuous, increasingly harmonized
contention with every resource, interest and position at play: any hint of
"victory" for one side at any point has implications too severe to be
Any localized variant of this kind of battle formation has integrity only in
relation to the structure of the strategic theater. Readers skeptical about the
connection of this worldview with the Horn of Africa situation may be well
advised to pay close attention to the testimony of David Shinn, former US
ambassador to Ethiopia, to the US Congress in the summer of 2005.
Along such a line of reasoning, even the choice of the South Sea Fleet in the
ongoing expedition in the Gulf of Aden attains a certain sort of importance.
The South Sea Fleet is, from a close reading of literature, that component of
the PLA Navy most specialized in dealing with hot geostrategic deadlock
(strategic combat) by virtue of its present and historical orientations towards
Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and the
Philippines, all of which, particularly with regards to the Philippines, bring
into play America's South China Sea posture. Japan is another matter
When all is said, it is far from difficult to lay out the pieces in the Gulf of
Aden with respect to a "strategic combat" configuration.
China considers the Middle East treacherous and apparently prefers to undertake
its penetration by circumnavigation, and Africa offers favorable currents for
its choice of trajectory, which is not to say that the continent in and of
itself is not a destination.
Readers may recall that for several years, well into the Dengist reform era,
Beijing preferred to use Hong Kong, Macau and the intermediation of guanxi
- defined loosely as personal connections - to effect an entry into the global
capitalist regime, even while it consolidated its holds on these Asian outposts
of economic freedom.
Observers may call this "expansionism by a thousand strides" (in obvious
reference to the more macabre phrase, "death by a thousand cuts") without too
much loss of accuracy. Rear Admiral Jingchen's Lushan navy will hunt a few
pirates for sure, but only because prudence requires that they not draw too
much attention to their greater and broader focus well beyond the rugged Somali
One wonders though whether Washington is braced for this latest escalation of
the strategic stakes.
Bright B Simons is acting convener of the upcoming Sino-African Virtual
Institute at IMANI Center for Policy and Education, in Accra, Ghana, and a
freelance contributor to Asia Times Online.