It would be tempting to write off the Chinese-built Doraleh port in Djibouti, inaugurated in late May, as another phase of Beijing’s African investment spree. China’s state companies have spent years entrenching themselves in the continent’s shipping, mining and defense industries. The port, however, adds a whole new dimension to China’s role in the most tangible of ways: an adjacent military base, currently under construction, which represents Beijing’s first permanent overseas installation and may bring an end to its long-held policy of “non-intervention” across the African continent, from the Horn of Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Long home to French, US, and Japanese forces, Djibouti has found its niche in its strategic position atop the shipping lanes connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Its relative stability in the fractious region belies an authoritarian government ruling over an ethnically divided nation. Since 1999, President Guelleh’s tenure has been marked by reliable economic growth at the expense of individual freedoms.
Western criticism may be helping push Guelleh towards China, but Beijing made its new base possible first and foremost with massive investments. These projects include a water pipeline from Ethiopia, a railway to Addis Ababa, and a new international airport 25km south of the capital, with costs totaling over US$1.2 billion. Those come alongside the mostly Chinese-funded, $600 million multipurpose port in Doraleh, which will also service the neighboring base.
With its new installation, China is now an active participant in Africa’s present and future power struggles. Beijing has passed a new milestone, but as China broadens its presence, it is running into the same problems that bedevil the rest of the international community on the continent. Many of China’s partners, like Guelleh, run corrupt and unstable kleptocracies. Chinese foreign policy now faces a choice: will it reach a consensus with the West on promoting good governance, or will it choose a zero-sum approach that ignores these failings for the sake of market share – perhaps at its own peril?
Thus far, Chinese policymakers have offered shifting answers to this question. In the mid-2000s, Beijing opposed Western sanctions on Sudan despite ongoing violence against minorities in Darfur, going so far as to provide equipment and support to Sudanese security forces. China similarly took advantage of Western sanctions on Zimbabwe to provide services and investments, propping up Robert Mugabe at his moment of greatest isolation. Over the past couple of years, however, such clear rejections of international norms have become the exception rather than the rule. Beijing pointedly refused, for example, to offer Mugabe unconditional support in the face of mass protests in 2016. Is China turning over a new leaf?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may offer a chance to answer that question. With tensions in the DRC at a boiling point, both China and local partners face a watershed moment.
For Beijing, the DRC represents the kind of natural resource wealth underpinning its interests across Africa. After the ravages of the Second Congo War, economic recovery has centered around major deposits of minerals, cobalt and copper. The DRC is home to nearly half of the world’s current reserves of cobalt. In 2015, it surpassed Zambia as the continent’s biggest producer of copper, whose worth has more than quadrupled in the past decade. China has substantial stakes in the country’s extractive industries: its state banks having put up over US$6 billion in funding for both infrastructure development and mineral exploration under the terms of the 2007 Sicomines arrangement.
Those ties, however, could soon be derailed. President Joseph Kabila, who received military training in China before coming to power, saw his term officially expired last December but refuses to allow elections, blaming everything from voter registration issues to steep costs. Widespread protests are growing, and a new United Nations report exposes war crimes and ethnic cleansing committed by Kabila’s security forces against a backdrop of ongoing conflict in the eastern Kivu region and other slow-burning insurgencies.
The DRC’s opposition movement has repeatedly threatened general strikes. The Fighting for Change (Lucha) pro-democracy youth movement led mass demonstrations on July 31, with the backing of former regional governor and current opposition leader Moïse Katumbi. Katumbi, currently in Europe to avoid criminal charges denounced by Congolese civil society as a “farce”, has solidified his position as one of Kabila’s main challengers. Over the past several days, three more major political and civic platforms – the G7, Political Change for the Republic, and the Platforms for Civil Society – have pledged their support to Katumbi’s candidacy, denouncing both the charges against him and Kabila’s “illegitimate” rule.
The opposition coalition also includes Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late Etienne Tshisekedi, who has formed an alliance with Katumbi and last month lambasted Kabila for a “declaration of war on the Congolese people”. Kabila’s opponents enjoy the support in both Europe and the United States, with the EU and US imposing sanctions to convince Kabila to forgo his position.
China has chosen a more cautious “wait and see” approach. From a pragmatic point of view, Beijing is faced with two choices: it can either stand by Kabila’s embattled presidency or facilitate his departure. Kabila’s entrenched nepotism has perpetuated systemic corruption in the DRC, but it has also allowed Chinese firms privileged access to mineral resources. Supporting Kabila may preserve short-term access, but could also trigger the large-scale political violence China and other investors seek to avoid. If, on the other hand, Beijing leveraged its economic clout in the country to push Kabila out, it would alleviate the country’s political tensions while placing China on favorable grounds with the new leadership – while also improving the volatile conditions preventing China from seeing returns on its mining investments.
Direct involvement in the DRC could ultimately benefit China, but it would also signal the end of Beijing’s ability to extract economic value without the concerns faced by the West. In either event, Beijing clearly requires a consistent doctrine in approaching local partners. The Chinese may well find that the Western model of incentivizing governance serves their own purposes as well; as Kabila has shown them, it is hard to work with unstable governments without eventually having to pay the price.
Felipe Cruvinel is currently working on a research project on Data Analytics in Counterinsurgency as part of a PhD in International Relations at the University of Saint Andrews. His Twitter is @FCruvi.