Is China entering its own military quagmire abroad?
Word came earlier this month that one of the world's major powers is preparing to deploy troops to a restive and resource-rich part of the globe in order to protect civilian life and oil facilities.
But no, this isn't the U.S. in Iraq. The superpower in question is China, and the region is East Africa.
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Beijing had deployed 700 troops to South Sudan under the auspices of the United Nations. While Chinese troops have embarked on UN missions before, these peacekeepers will be specifically protecting Chinese citizens and oil fields in a country in the throws of a violent civil war. Thousands of South Sudanese have been killed and over a million displaced by fighting between rebels and government forces, both of which are backed by rival ethnic groups.
Traditionally, Beijing prefers to play the role of disinterested do-gooder on the global stage, making the news of their involvement a bit of a surprise. And it just might, as Business Insider's Armin Rosen recently noted, be a sign that China is ready to flex its muscle in new ways.
"China is effectively using the UN as cover for a military deployment that serves Beijing's specific interests," said Rosen.
Beijing has long been happy to let the United States underwrite its access to oil and gas riches in places like the Middle East — China now imports more oil from the Middle East than the U.S. — however the same cannot be said of South Sudan and other East African countries.
Restive South Sudan's rather tense relationship with Sudan, the country it split from in 2011, is well documented, and it's no secret that South Sudanese authorities would prefer alternatives to using its estranged neighbor's main port for oil shipping. This is where China enters the equation.
China has become Africa's biggest commercial partner in rather short time, with trade between Beijing and the continent reaching $200 billion in 2013. This transactional relationship has, to date, focused primarily on commodities like oil, gas, and minerals. But China has its eyes on a potentially larger prize: the rapidly growing consumer markets of sub-Saharan Africa. The nations therein are expected to see a GDP boom in the coming years, with countries like Ethiopia — which has seen double-digit GDP growth in recent years — leading the way.
For China, sub-Saharan Africa represents a veritable oasis of business opportunities. Unfortunately, many of these countries are landlocked and suffer from poor infrastructure. As President Obama told The Economist, "It is easier now to send a shipment of goods from Nairobi to Amsterdam than it is to send those goods to many parts of Africa."
Beijing happens to agree with the president, which explains why Chinese contractors and state-owned outfits have in recent years invested heavily in port, rail, and road projects all across the continent. Last year alone, China committed over $5 billion to help revamp the Kenyan rail system. In Tanzania, China has pledged to assist in the construction of a massive logistical hub in the capital city of Dar es Salaam.
Tied to these projects is the more ambitious venture in Kenya's costal region of Lamu, where the China Communications Construction Company has invested in the creation of a multi-billion dollar port and transport hub intended to link East Africa's landlocked markets and oil producers, like South Sudan, to the coast. The Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport project, or LAPSSET, is slated to include, among other things, the construction of new pipelines connecting East African oil to a new refinery in Kenya, over 1,500 miles in new rail and road construction, and three new international airports.
All of these projects are important to East Africa's growth — they also make for incredibly vulnerable targets.
Recent unrest in the Lamu region — likely carried out by the jihadist group al Shabab — has left the LAPSSET project in limbo — and China with a dilemma.
Kenya in particular poses a number of security challenges for Chinese contractors and investors. Al Shabab resents the Kenyan government's role in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and has thus targeted the country on more than one occasion. Last year's deadly attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall stands out, but it was just one shot in the ongoing cold war between Kenya and the terrorist organization.
The Kenyan government is also pushing to lure more Chinese tourists. Al Shabab's travel brochure reads rather plainly on the matter, however: "Kenya is now officially a war zone and as such any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril."
Beijing has been sensitive to charges of imperial overreach in Africa, but with Chinese contractors and tourists now scattered all around East Africa, will China accept its citizens being the targets of terrorists and separatists? Its recent moves in South Sudan suggest that the answer is no.