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China’s Inexorable Rise: Blessing or Threat for the Horn?


despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water and Olympic gold medals, still don’t have democracy…we may not have sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, but we do have democracy… If I were making a country, I’d get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy’’[i]

The appropriateness of a quote from a novel about a chauffeur-cum- servant who murders his employer may not seem immediately obvious in the context of a Horn of Africa Bulletin (HAB) thematic issue on Sino-Horn of Africa relations. But there are some intriguing parallels. The plot of the novel unfolds in the form of letters written by the narrator (i.e. the murderer) to the then Premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Wen Jianbao.[ii] Even more strikingly, a constant refrain in the novel are the implicit and explicit contrasts between India and China, that the narrator draws attention to especially in terms of the developmental gains achieved by the PRC with its distinctive political system relative to the entrenched corruption and social injustice in democratic India. A variation of this binary trope is a standard feature of the media and academic treatment of China in Africa.

The notion that China’s illiberal political system and its socio-economic achievements provide an implicit model for Africa to emulate-or that the Chinese model presents both a tempting option and source of support for aspiring and actual autocrats in Africa, is a central trope in both the media and academic literature that seeks to describe and explain the PRC’s remarkably rapid expansion of influence in Africa.

Chinese state-owned enterprises and private corporations are important investors in oil, minerals, infrastructure development and to a lesser extent also in industry and agriculture. The government of China utilizes credit facilities (preferential or concessional loans), through specifically designated financial institutes-the China Export-Import Bank (EXIM Bank), the China Development Bank and the China Agriculture Development Bank (CADB)-to promote trade and foreign direct investment with countries in the Global South.

The PRC’s engagement on peace and security issues in Africa has expanded in the past two decades. China has sent contingents to participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and South Sudan. China is also taking on a more expansive role in conflict management and mediation efforts to defuse inter-state and intra-state conflicts in several African states. The PRC’s first military-naval base outside China was established in Djibouti in 2017 and the PRC naval units participate in the multinational counter-piracy naval task force in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) through trade, investment and financial engagement (concessional loans and grants), has increasingly emerged as the most important foreign economic partner for countries in the Horn. Infrastructure projects in the Horn with critical national economic significance and which could accelerate regional economic integration are funded by Chinese credit facilities and the work is carried out by through joint ventures with Chinese corporations.

The rapid and disconcerting (for some) prominence of the PRC in the economic, diplomatic and military spheres globally and in Africa in particular, has raised concerns that China’s rise and its intentions could prove to be a source of instability and tensions. Nowhere has this been more so the case, than in Africa where the PRC’s economic operations and its expanding influence, has drawn accusations of ‘neo-colonialism’, ‘economic exploitation’ and ‘debt trap diplomacy’. Chinese corporations in Africa have also been accused of exploitative practices with African labor, engaging in large scale land grabbing and environmental pollution. Finally, the principles undergirding the PRC’s relations with Africa, especially the emphasis on ‘non-interference’ and ‘respect for sovereignty’, have been interpreted by some as a pretext for cooperative relations with authoritarian regimes in Africa.

There are many problems with the conventional treatment on Sino-Africa relations such as issues of bias, positionality and the seeming inability or unwillingness to historicize Africa’s international relations.

China’s increasing prominence in Africa cannot be disentangled from shifts in the global balance of power where the traditional hegemons are increasingly being challenged by emerging powers. In the context of the Horn, China’s expanding reach is also occurring in a context where middle-range external powers such as the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are engaged in a scramble for influence and military bases.[iii] Understandably, one could then view the tenor of media and academic coverage of China as a manifestation of deeper unease relating to the changing world order. More specifically, the current focus on China in Africa cannot be decoupled from the ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and China over the South Pacific, trade and technology.[iv]

This issue of the HAB had the objective of understanding the impact of China’s expanding influence in the Horn of Africa by foregrounding perspectives not just from the Horn but also perspectives that are alternative. The articles in this issue of the HAB have not only achieved the goal of foregrounding perspectives absent from mainstream coverage of Sino-Africa relations but have also addressed under explored aspects of the relationship between China and the Horn.

The article by Dr. Ferras explores the expansion of foreign (non-African) military bases in Djibouti and explores the motivations and incentives that explain this trend. Dr. Ferras article is extremely interesting in also diverging from the alarmism and scaremongering that characterizes much of the analysis of the PRC’s first foreign military base. The article also compares the impact and relative benefits of the scramble for military bases from the point of view of governments in the Horn and concludes on an unusual note in suggesting that China’s military presence in the Horn is more benign and less threatening than usually supposed.

The article by Mushtaq is a very interesting exploration of an aspect of China’s growing global influence that is often ignored, specifically the notion of soft power and the Chinese media expanding presence in Africa. The article showcases critical differences in the media coverage of Africa and African issues between Chinese and Western media. The article suggests that the global information order is evolving even if not necessarily in the direction of the old notion of a ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ (NWICO) that was a central goal of Global South advocacy in the late 20th century. One possible gap in the article may be the relative absence of analysis on how African media actors are engaging and reacting to China’s expanding presence in Africa.

Mr. Ahmed’s article is more narrowly focused on analyzing the possible implications of a fishery agreement between the Somalia Federal Government and China. The article analyzes the potential benefits and risks associated with the agreement and suggests that continuing conflict and political divisions in Somalia could impact the agreement. More critically, the article argues that lack of consultations of coastal communities regarding the fishery agreement is a worrisome gap that could potentially function as a source of future grievances.

The final article in this issue of the HAB discusses China’s expanding economic and political weight in the Horn by situating it in a global and regional context defined by seismic shifts in the global balance of power and the parallel Western, Gulf and Turkish scramble for military and economic influence in the region. Leulseged’s article makes a persuasive case for the benefits of China’s multifaceted economic linkages with the member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) but sounds a note of caution in urging governments in the Horn to avoid being entangled in the rivalries between China and the West. The article urges governments in the Horn to engage in joint consultations and to articulate a common position in the face of the scramble for military and economic influence by external actors in the Horn. The author also argues that both the IGAD and the African Union (AU) have a key role to play in terms of developing a comprehensive i.e. African response to the military and economic scramble for influence by external actors in Africa.

Readers of the HAB will find the articles in this issue of the HAB highly relevant and topical especially in the context of the political shifts occurring in Ethiopia and Sudan. Historically in the Horn of Africa domestic political shifts often lead to shifts in foreign policy orientation. The articles in this issue of the HAB provide alternative perspectives and views which despite their limitations would provide analysts and actors in the policy realm in the region, with valuable insights.

[i] Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

[ii] Between 2003 and 2013.

[iii] Also covered in earlier HAB issues, see for instance: Horn of Africa Bulletin. ‘’Gulf engulfing the Horn’’. September-October 2017. ; Horn of Africa Bulletin. ‘’Maritime Insecurity Dilemmas amidst a new scramble for the Horn’’. March-April 2018,

[iv] See:   Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on the Trump Administration’s New Africa Strategy, December 18, 2018.; Stephens, Phillip. ‘’Trade is just an opening shot in a wider US-China conflict.’’ Financial Times, May 16, 2019, Kuo, Lily & Sabrina Siddiqui. ‘’ Huawei hits back after Trump declares national emergency on telecoms ‘threat’.’’ The Guardian, May 16, 2019.

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