China’s Naval Policy Off The Coast of Somalia: Int. Participation, the Preservation of Strategic Interests, or Security?


Friday, 14 October 2011 18:12

An argument stemming from an emerging scholar and friend, Antony Ou, posits that China’s entrance into naval policing off the Somali coast is a historic event. He reasons this to be the case because this is one of the few times China has engaged its fleet in the sovereign waters of another state and that, at least on this occasion, it may be contrary to the PRC’s usual non-intervention policy respecting the sovereignty of individual states. We could argue that China’s fleet is necessary in the Gulf of Aden because Somalia does not have a strong sovereign state. It could also be argued that the USA’s navy is stretched too thin, that it is increasingly unpopular, and that this presents a void that China can fill. All of the points in Ou’s argument could be real. However, this only presents one dimension of a multi-dimensional scenario (which is not to the detriment of Ou’s important points). It is argued that China is not engaging its navy simply to protect its trade routes or to fill security gaps created by a weakening or over-committed United States navy. It is probably doing so to also try and strengthen its position as an international power and to also realize its own goals for development in Africa out of humanitarian concerns.

chinese_navyTo gain a robust understanding of these positions and to try and tease out which position is most likely the most correct, this article will try to meet Beck and Grande’s (2010) call for the use of a cosmopolitan methodology in the social sciences. To keep true to this call, the literature drawn upon to formulate the first part of this article will come from a variety of languages (some might say discourses) on the subject of China’s naval policy in the Gulf of Aden, off the Somali coast. It is hoped that by using literature not simply from the English language, we might gain perhaps a more legitimate sense of the situation: one that is perhaps less parochial and conforming to cosmopolitan theory. The goal of this paper is to analyse the PRC’s foreign policies concerning pirating off the coast of Somalia and whether this naval action is more for the benefit of the international community and is an act of humanitarianism, whether it is a purely strategic ploy to protect its sea-going trade routes, or if it is something else we might be missing such as a specific desire to bolster diplomatic relations or China’s role as a global partner.

The literature will be investigated using simplified Mandarin, English, French, Spanish and Russian research. To go further, I shall also attempt to maintain a balance of gender (as close to 50/50 as possible) in the evidence drawn upon as this is also arguably part of a cosmopolitan methodology. Russian and Mandarin were selected because it gives a geographic balance to the evidence and might help to keep any one regional parochialism at bay. Spanish and French were chosen because they are Eurocentric languages which might help to provide a broader argument than by simply using English literature. It is hoped that the effort put into using this form of a cosmopolitan methodology will provide results that are slightly more robust than using research from only Eurocentric or Chinese discourses on the subject.

It is perhaps common knowledge at this stage in the literature that China imports a certain degree (the figures vary almost from source to source as disclosure from the PRC is considered unreliable in English and French forums) of primary resources from Africa. These resources often travel overland to ports on the east coast of Africa and are then shipped directly to Chinese ports (see De Bod, 2008; Mpata, Giersing, Kaombwe, 2004; Keeling, 2007; Clark, Dollar and Micco, 2004; and DeCaro, 2005/6 for more information in English). Should the goods be shipped to ports on the west coast of Africa the goods would have to round the southern cape, go through the Suez Canal, or go the longer way through the Panama Canal: this substantially delays the time imports arrive and when taking into account the canal options a portion of profit goes toward paying passage fees. This might help to explain why Chinese companies are seen to be rebuilding or building completely new rail and road infrastructure in central and western Africa (see Vi, 2004; Kéfi, 2006; Lupano and Sánchez, 2009; Anonymous, 2004; Bavoux, 2000; Dorier-Apprill and Domingo, 2004; Ta, Choo, and Sum, 2000; Dollar, 2008; Woodburn et al, 2008; Zepp-Larouche, 2007; and Deitch, 2009, for more).

However, this look might be overly critical. There is a certain degree of evidence showing that the PRC is trying to participate in international humanitarian projects solely for that reason. Hongwu (2007), Yuan (2000), Zhen (2008), Lei (2009), China News (2010), and Zhan (2007) show this in Mandarin literature. We start to see, however, a slightly more critical tone from Lebedeva (2008), Nizamov (2009), and Koksharov (2006), which can be seen in this quote:

Саммит в Пекине уникален как для Китая, так и для Африки. С Черного континента в Пекин прибыли представители практически всех африканских государств, на которые приходится четверть голосов в ООН, значительное количество природных ресурсов и мирового населения. В то время как Запад очень избирательно подходит к политическим контактам с африканскими странами, Пекин показал свою готовность налаживать связи со всеми. Так, на китайский саммит были приглашены президент Судана Омар аль-Башир, которого США и Евросоюз обвиняют в организации геноцида в Дарфуре, а также президент Зимбабве Роберт Мугабе, являющийся персоной нон грата в большинстве развитых стран. Китай готов открыто обсуждать даже те темы, которые обычно обсуждаются за закрытыми дверями. Так, Египет и Китай обсуждали вопросы сотрудничества в области ядерных технологий. “Китай и Африка разделяют общие интересы и имеют общие потребности”, – поприветствовал гостей председатель КНР Ху Цзиньтао. Он заявил, что развитие связей с Африкой станет одним из приоритетов внешней политики Пекина. (Koksharov, 2006: 62)

The Summit in Beijing is unique for both China and Africa. The Dark Continent is being represented by members of almost every country from the continent in Beijing. This accounts for a quarter of the votes in the UN and a significant amount of natural resources and world population. While the West takes a very selective approach to its relations with African countries, Beijing has shown its interest to establish relations with all. We have seen that China invited Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, which the US and EU both accused of having been responsible for organizing the genocide in Darfur, as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is a persona non grata in most countries. China is prepared to openly discuss topics usually reserved for closed doors. For example, Egypt and China discussed issues for cooperation in nuclear technology. “China and Africa share common interests and have common needs” is how President Hu Jintao greeted his African guests. He stated that the development of relations with Africa will become one of Beijing’s foreign policy priorities.

This brief description of the ambivalence in the literature foreshadows what is to come when discussing China’s naval policy (especially that there is an arguable lack of critical analysis within the Mandarin literature). But before engaging this central subject we need to go further into the literature to gain a sense of how and why China does humanitarian aid in Africa. Once we gain a more robust understanding of the possible reasons, we may proceed to looking at the PRC’s naval policies off the coast of Somalia.

  • Chinese Aid to Africa: Positive Evidence

我的目标是分析中国对非洲援助的主要驱动力,我认为中国援助非洲的目的并非仅仅依赖于现实主义者提到的出于安全利益的考虑,也不是自由主义所看到的中国以这种方式实现共赢,抑或受到人道主义需要的引导,诸如国际形象与中国作为发展中国家的身份也影响到中国的援助政策…第三章中国对非洲援助的主要驱动力 许多主导发展援助的因素都已经在关于对外援助的著作中分析到,就中国来说,首先现实主义派别强辩中国对非洲援助最起决定性的因素是中国由于自身国家发展对非洲资源的渴求,中国经济增长同国家利益安全紧密相关,其次自由主义学者坚持人道主义需要及经济动机是中国对非洲援助的主要因素. 这些原因不足以说明中国对外援助的全部动因,诸如国家形象建设与中国作为发展中国家的身份也都影响了中国对非洲的援助。 事实上,建设一个良好的国家形象已经成为中国治国方略中的一个重要组成部分,建设诸如负责任的大国、非洲的好朋友这样的国家形象已经影响到中国外交政策表现。 区域因素影响到中国援助政策,中国仍旧是一个发展中国家的现实决定对外援助要基于南南合作的基础之上,中国援助政策具有这种援助方式的特性与基本原则。 (Lei, 2009: 4)

My goal is to analyse China’s aid to Africa and what its main driving forces are. I think Chinese aid to Africa is not simply based on realist security interests, or the liberal perspective that China seeks a win-win situation [perhaps economically] with Africa, or that it is merely guided by humanitarian concerns…We see that two major driving forces for China’s aid to Africa are [1] that continent’s resources and [2] China’s abilities to realize its aspirations for African national development or that China has specific humanitarian programs linked with economic interests. However, these are not convincing enough. We should also consider China’s goal of constructing a national image of itself as a developing country. This goal of constructing a good image of the national government is part of responsibly managing a big country, of being a friend to Africa, which culminates in South-South relations and mutual assistance.

This quote gives us a sense that there are at least three positions we should be considering when regarding Chinese aid to Africa (this is relevant to its naval policies in the Gulf of Aden). The first concerns its security interests; the second its economic interests; and the third its diplomatic interests. At this point in the literature review, it appears that the Mandarin literature is more in support of the latter: that the PRC is seeking to improve its image internationally through diplomatic and humanitarian relations. When we look into Russian, Spanish, French and English literature, the emphasis is more on security, economics, and trying to find the wizard behind the curtain of Chinese aid.  However, there are a number of pieces in the literature that are casting these three areas in an increasingly positive light.


Published in Journal of Global Analysis (JGA) Vol. 2  No. 2

Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political theorist with a PhD in political science. Presently, he conducts his work as a Research Fellow with the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and as an Honorary Research Fellow with the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s Centre for Greater China Studies. He edits the Journal of Democratic Theory and assists the UNDP with its democratic governance research.

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