Small Wars Journal

On the Horns of a Dilemma – Addressing Chinese Security Engagement in the HOA

Fri, 11/02/2018 - 1:45am

On the Horns of a Dilemma – Addressing Chinese Security Engagement in the HOA


Doug Livermore




Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China following the victory of the Chinese Communist Party over the Nationalists in 1949, Beijing has viewed its interaction with the larger world predominantly within a construct of concentric defensive rings, with nearly the entirety of its security apparatus focused on defense of the Chinese homeland against threats to the Party. However, the Chinese government’s announcement of its intention to establish a permanent military support facility in Djibouti in 2015 signaled a significant departure from China’s long-term defense-focused strategy, which had steadfastly sought to avoid enduring overseas deployment of military personnel.[i] The decision to institute a military presence in Djibouti also marked a profound perception shift within the ruling Chinese Communist Party as it reassessed its strategic interests and roles in the Horn of Africa as well as within the broader global community. As a rising world power, China sees many advantages in expanding its engagement in the Horn of Africa as it increases its diplomatic influence, overseas military posture, and access to some of the fastest-growing economic markets and natural resource deposits on the planet. This evolving outlook has, and will continue to have, significant impact on the development of Chinese military strategy and its capabilities, particularly as it relates to the Peoples Liberation Army’s force projection modalities, counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations, peacekeeping contributions, and multinational military training and exercises.


This strategic shift confers substantial advantages to the PRC, but also comes with notable disadvantages as China acquires more diverse security obligations that expose its key military assets to potential isolation from the homeland. Beijing must carefully weigh these advantages and disadvantages as part of its strategic calculus. Finally, China’s increased security engagement in the Horn of Africa has important implications for United States’ policies equally in the region and globally. China’s expansion presents both risks and opportunities that the United States should judiciously consider and leverage to ensure continued stability and the advancement of interests shared between the U.S. and China. 


Chinese Strategic Interests in the Horn of Africa


The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increased engagement in the Horn of Africa (HoA) is a direct result of its rapidly evolving perspective on its strategic interests in both Africa and the broader world. For the majority of its rule over the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has viewed security engagement through a defensive lens, with foreign powers viewed almost exclusively in terms of potential threats arrayed within concentric defensive rings centered on the Chinese homeland.[ii] This perspective is not without a logical basis, as China has historically faced significant threats to its territory from many of its neighbors, including Russia, India, and Japan. Even the United States (U.S.) engaged in several attempts to covertly topple the CCP from power through the use of indigenous proxy forces during the early years of the PRC, an affront which has long influenced the CCP’s interactions with the U.S.[iii] As Chairman of the CCP from 1949 until his retirement in 1976, Mao Zedong focused the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the defense of the Chinese homeland as a means of ensuring the continued rule of the CCP. Until his death in 1982, Mao emphasized the prominence of “People’s War”, which played to the PLA’s massive manpower advantage while minimizing the disadvantages posed by its lack of modern military equipment or professional training.[iv] The horrendous losses experienced by the PLA at the hands of the United Nations (UN) and U.S. forces during the Korean War pay grim testament to both the effectiveness but callousness of this military strategy.


Hua Guofeng assumed the chairmanship of the CCP from Mao, but his reign was largely ineffective, and he was forced from power in 1978 by a cabal led by Deng Xiaoping.[v] The period of Deng’s leadership saw the first major effort to modernize the PLA, as Deng disengaged the PLA from politics, and refocused it primarily on military affairs. Deng also reformed the organizational and training policies of the PLA to improve combat effectiveness and undertook a massive transformation of the Chinese defense industrial base to better develop and sustain a modern military force.[vi] The efforts imposed by Deng to roll back the excesses of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and modernize China would have a lasting impact on the trajectory of China’s rise. A second period of Chinese military reform began in 1996, when the deployment of two U.S. carrier groups to defend Taiwan after the PLA fired short-range ballistic missiles into the dividing strait convinced the CCP that it would need to complete the reforms begun under Deng or else forever cower before American military might.[vii] Between Deng’s comprehensive reforms and the increased military budgets allocated since 1996, China has progressively modernized the PLA, slowly establishing more indigenous production capability, and developed modern aircraft and ships vital for the projection of force farther and farther afield from the Chinese homeland.


Concurrently, China’s diplomatic and economic outlook toward the world shifted as the CCP’s internal security further solidified. Chinese companies gained improved access to foreign markets, and domestic demand for limited natural resources increased. With decreasing concerns about domestic instability, increased global economic integration, and more modernized military capabilities, the CCP has begun to reexamine and adapt its strategic interests to look outside of the immediate defensive concerns that preoccupied the Party during the earlier periods of the PRC.[viii] In the last two decades, Chinese companies have invested heavily in African economic markets, with its two largest trading partners being South Africa and Ethiopia. A 2017 report by the McKinsey & Company consulting firm found that, since 2000, China has become Africa’s largest overall trading partner when measured across five unique dimensions: total goods trade, total foreign direct investment, percentage growth rate of foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and infrastructure financing. McKinsey assessed that there were some 10,000 Chinese companies operating across Africa, representing an estimated 12% of the continent’s total manufacturing industry and nearly half of its internationally contracted construction.[ix]  In addition, while the most profitable Chinese companies operating in Africa tended to be PRC state-owned, the clear majority were private companies operated by nongovernmental Chinese citizens.


The incredible growth of Chinese economic interests in Africa is an important driver behind the PRC’s increased interest in engagement. Now, the PRC is in the midst of a comprehensive, whole of government strategy to advance its national interests across Africa, but particularly in the HoA. Probably more so than anywhere else in Africa, the HoA represents a confluence of Chinese security and economic interests. The HoA controls access to the Suez Canal and key sea lines of communication in the western Indian Ocean through which much of its maritime commerce must travel to Europe. The PRC imports nearly 80% of its oil through the Indian Ocean, leading the Chinese Academy of Military Science to write in the 2013 Science of Military Strategy that:[x]

Sea lines and channels have already become [China’s] economic and societal development ‘lifelines’… [which are neither] possessed by us, nor controlled by us; in case a maritime crisis or war were to happen, our maritime routes have the possibility of being cut off.

As such, the establishment of Chinese military capabilities in the HoA allows the PRC to strengthen its strategic posture as it relates both to India and the U.S. China’s comprehensive strategy integrates diplomatic outreach, informational messaging, increased military presence and activities, and economic development through direct investment and bilateral agreements guaranteeing Chinese companies access to vital natural resources.[xi]  However, rather than view Chinese initiatives in the region as a “zero sum” competition, Americans should more accurately understand that this level of engagement is intended to advance China’s interests mostly independent of any considerations related directly to the U.S.


Diplomatically, China has taken a significant interest in expanding its relationships across the HoA. As part of a comprehensive, whole of government strategy, the PRC has courted a number of influential members of East Africa’s regional power structure. This strategy has seen the use of bilateral and multilateral engagement that advances China's diplomatic interest. In recent years, the PRC has pursued deeper direct bilateral diplomatic engagement with Ethiopia, Djibouti, and even the Somali transitional government.[xii] Meanwhile, the PRC has also invested heavily in multilateral engagement, such as in 2012, when it gifted to the African Union (AU) an expensive conference center located in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The China State Construction Engineering Company (CSCEC) built the massive structure, which includes a plenary hall for 2,500 delegates, for approximately 200 million dollars. It was not until five years after the CSCEC finished construction, in January 2018, that extensive eavesdropping equipment and computer data export systems were allegedly discovered in the facility, prompting muted accusations of espionage against the PRC [xiii] The Chinese government has vehemently denied these accusations, and the head of the AU Commission has supported these denials.[xiv] Despite such accusations and some lingering suspicions of its long-term intentions by African states, China has successfully grown its diplomatic presence in the HoA.


China’s strategic messaging to African countries offers an alternative perspective advocating economic development, foreign direct investment, and minimization of external interference in domestic affairs. By pushing this worldview, especially in the developing world, the PRC is advancing its shared interests through engagement across the HoA. A key component of this effort is the CCP’s Central Party School (CPS), which conducts “political party training” across Africa and consists “of lectures in ideology and party building, exposure to Chinese culture, field visits and mentorship of African political leaders, and deployment of Chinese party officials to the continent as political advisors”.[xv] While the CPS has historically focused on spreading Chinese socialist ideology, this messaging has shifted in recent years to focus on the “China model”, which emphasizes authoritarian capitalism.[xvi] Particularly in the developing world, these messages resonate well with countries who seek to emulate the self-made Chinese. Moreover, as the major powers in the HOA continue to mature and develop, their pro-China ideological foundation will further spread and reinforce China's interests.


Militarily, the PRC’s increased presence in the region serves the dual purposes of increasing flexibility for responding to contingency events as well as the deployment of strategic assets to improve its posture comparative to major rivals. The PRC’s establishment of a permanent military facility in Djibouti was prompted, at least partially, by the inability of the PLA to effectively respond to the 2012 civil war in Libya. During that emergency, the PLA did not have adequate deployed assets to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya, forcing the PRC to rely on regional partners such as Egypt to rescue its citizens.[xvii] By establishing a permanent presence in Africa, the PLA will now be able to more rapidly respond to emerging requirements on the continent. Further, the establishment of a military base and port facility in Djibouti will strengthen the PRC's efforts to encircle its strategic rival, India, against which the PRC seeks to establish a ring of bases throughout the Indian Ocean.[xviii] Similar to its approach in Djibouti, China is competing with India to establish naval bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman, and the Seychelles.[xix] The forward deployment of Chinese military assets will allow the PLA to better respond to any emergencies, support ongoing counterpiracy operations in the western Indian Ocean, and improve its strategic posture vis-à-vis its regional rivals.


Economically, increased Chinese engagement in the HoA, especially in Djibouti, directly advances key Chinese interests in the region. Ethiopia is eastern Africa's fastest growing economy, and the majority of its commercial imports and exports pass through the port of Djibouti.[xx] In late 2017, the Djiboutian government canceled a contract with a Dubai-based company that was managing the national port. Shortly thereafter, the government entered into intense negotiations with a Shanghai-based port management company with ties to the PRC to assume these responsibilities. Despite concerns expressed by the U.S., both the Shanghai-based company and the Djiboutian government have sought to reassure Washington that access to the port will not change once the Chinese company takes over.[xxi] Ethiopia and Djibouti both contracted Chinese rail companies to both establish new and upgrade existing railroad networks connecting their countries and the port of Djibouti.[xxii] Other China-based companies have also dramatically expanded market access throughout eastern Africa. These moves, when combined with increased Chinese control of the main port of entry for all commercial goods, demonstrate Beijing's growing economic interests in the HoA.


The PRC has pursued a comprehensive, whole of government approach to expand diplomatic, informational, military, and economic engagement in the HoA. The amount of resources and energy committed by the PRC to its engagement in the HoA clearly demonstrates an increased estimation of its national interests in the region. The PRC’s diplomatic outreach, informational advocacy for its authoritarian capitalism, establishment of permanent military facilities and increased security activity, and vast economic market penetration and resource development, all contribute to China’s growing engagement in the region. Accordingly, it is necessary to understand how the PRC considers its regional interests in the HoA as supportive efforts to its broader global ambition. This expansion of engagement benefits China's regional goals of improving contingency response and economic access, as well as the PRC’s broader efforts to better posture itself as a rising global superpower. What is important to note is that the PRC views these interests generally independent of the U.S.’s own involvement in Africa.


Impact on Chinese Military Strategy and Capabilities


As previously discussed, the PRC's efforts to expand its activities in the HoA serves both regional and global Chinese national interest, specifically as they are related to China's security. This increased engagement in the HoA directly affects the defense modality of force protection on both a regional and strategic level. Regionally, permanent forward deployment of PLA assets and personnel directly contributes to the PRC's ability to respond to contingencies in eastern Africa while also supporting ongoing counterpiracy operations along the critical sea lines of communication that pass through the region. Strategically, the PLA's ability to forward sustain key strategic capabilities, such as carrier taskforces, allows the PRC greater flexibility in responding to potential conflicts with its most critical regional competitor, namely India. The PRC's decision to engage more deeply in the HoA has significant impacts on the strategy, doctrine, acquisitions, and capabilities of its military forces.


The PLA Army (PLAA), whose land forces makes up the majority of the permanently assigned forces at the PRC's permanent military facility in Djibouti, is undergoing significant changes, particularly in its organization and capabilities. The CCP intends these changes to allow the PLAA to better fulfill the expeditionary mission envisioned for it in Africa by the CCP. The PLAA has recently reorganized, reducing the number of armies and divisions in favor of growing the number of independent brigades and specialized regiments. Such formations are better optimized for expeditionary warfare.[xxiii] To support this shift in perspective, the PLAA has also sought more light-wheeled armored vehicles, helicopters, and forward-deployable intensive care medical support. The PLAA learned many of these lessons through its participation in the ongoing peacekeeping operations in the West African country of Mali.[xxiv] In March of 2018, the PLAA and PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) conducted its largest-ever deployment exercise of over 10,000 troops. This exercise was specifically designed to simulate a massive response to an otherwise unexpected overseas contingency.[xxv] During this exercise, the PLAA and PLANMC deployed these forces over 1,200 miles, or roughly the distance between their home bases and Djibouti, before engaging in a series of combat training events. Several of the PLANMC units that participated also regularly rotate through the new permanent Djiboutian facility.[xxvi] The combined impact of both the reorganization and acquisition of new capabilities directly support PRC's strategy for expanding engagement in the HoA.


While the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has historically focused on preparations to defend Chinese airspace and sinking enemy naval forces as they approach China’s shores, recent organizational changes have emphasized the importance of strategic airlift capability. In order to sustain both forward-deployed forces and to respond to rapidly developing contingencies, the PLAAF is drastically increasing procurement of heavy lift aircraft of Soviet era design while also pursuing research and development of a new generation indigenously produced aircraft. As the PRC discovered during the 2012 Libyan civil war, all the military capability in the world is useless if it cannot move that capability into theater or evacuate Chinese citizens. The PLAAF first began operating the Xi’an Y-20, touted as the largest mass-produced military aircraft in the world, in 2016. Originally, the PLAAF requested 400 of the massive aircraft, though the Aviation Industry Corporation of China has since revised the request to 1,000 such airframes.[xxvii] The intention of this transformation is to allow the rapid movement of large quantities of material and personnel by the PLAAF from the Chinese mainland to regions around the world. As was previously discussed, the integration of PLAAF strategic airlift capability featured heavily in the March 2018 exercise that saw the deployment of Chinese troops across distances meant to simulate travel from mainland China to likely overseas locations. As the PRC extends the reach of its strategic airlift capability, it must similarly upgrade its other aircraft by producing newer generation aircraft capable of defending its heavy lift capability further afield.


The service most profoundly influenced by the expansion of China's engagement in the HoA and elsewhere is the PLA Navy (PLAN). For nearly the entirety of the PRC's history, its naval forces have focused on defense of the Chinese mainland, truly embodying the concept of a "brown water navy". However, the beginning of Chinese counterpiracy operations off the coast of Somalia in 2008 marked an important transitory point in the history of the service.[xxviii] The PLAN recently completed sea trials on its first operational aircraft carrier, has a second under construction, and likely intends to produce more such vessels. There is intense debate underway within the PLAN and CCP as to exactly how many aircraft carriers the PRC requires. Few experts believe that China intends to numerically match U.S. Navy, which currently possesses 11 carriers.[xxix] As the PRC deploys its aircraft carrier task groups further from the Chinese mainland, it will rely upon established port facilities, such as that in Djibouti, to sustain its new "blue water navy". The PRC already announced plans to upgrade Djibouti’s port facilities to better support its largest naval vessels.[xxx] The exponential growth of the PLAN has also led to increased procurement of those support vessels critical to the underway sustainment of its fleets. Of note, the PLAN is acquiring a sizable fleet of oilers, supply vessels, and other support ships necessary to maintain its fleet far from friendly ports.[xxxi] In order to prepare for more advanced fleet operations, PLAN is also participating in a growing number of multinational exchanges and exercises with other more established navies, to include both the American and Russian navies.


The PRC's increased engagement in the HoA has prompted the PLA to pursue transformational change focused on the defense modality of force projection. The PLAA and PLANMC's transformation has focused on creating lighter, more agile, and deployable professional forces, capable of rapidly responding to overseas emergencies. The PLAAF has emphasized strategic airlift capability, predominantly to deploy those response forces of the PLAA into the theaters where they might be employed. Finally, the PLAN is in the midst of a fundamental transformation converting it from a small, homeland defense force to a first-class navy with truly global reach. The PRC’s increasing engagement in the HoA is directly influencing this transformation, as many of the adaptations underway clearly have direct application to how the CCP envisions employment of its military in the region.


Strengths and Weaknesses of the Strategy


The PLA’s strategy of expanded engagement in the HoA does afford it several advantages, first among them the ability to permanently project military force further from the Chinese homeland than ever before, an advantageous strategic posture in comparison to its longtime rival India, and a degree of symmetrical parity with other world powers that also maintain their own permanent military presence in the region. Given China’s growing overseas interests, particularly as it extends its “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative, the PLA has sought to increase its own ability to rapidly respond to contingencies around the world.[xxxii] The PRC’s 2015 Military Strategy unambiguously stated that:[xxxiii]

“…the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.”

The PLA faced considerable difficulty responding quickly and with enough military assets to affect the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya during the 2012 civil war, at least partly motivating the decision to establish a permanent overseas presence in Djibouti from which the PLA might more rapidly respond during future emergencies. From a strategic perspective, the PLA’s establishment and improvement of permanent facilities in the HoA, particularly to support larger naval vessels, provides it a distinct strategic advantage over India as the PLAN can now sustain and operate its growing naval fleet throughout the western Indian Ocean. This improved strategic posture also allows the PLAN to better secure Chinese maritime traffic through pirate-infested Somali waters and the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Finally, Chinese military presence in the HoA affords the PRC a greater degree of symmetrical parity with the U.S. and other major world powers who are already well established and operating in the region. This is especially the case in Djibouti, where the PLA established its new facility in close proximity to the existing multinational base at Camp Lemonnier.[xxxiv]


However, the PLA’s increased presence in the HoA also exposes a number of strategic weaknesses, particularly as the Chinese now find themselves with explicit and implicit security commitment in an unstable region, greater exposure of its most modern capabilities to intelligence collection efforts of its global competitors, and at isolating distance from the homeland that undermines the original defensive intent of the PLA. While the CCP specifically chose Djibouti to establish its first permanent overseas base due to the relative stability of the country, the rest of the HoA is historically wracked by violence. As Chinese engagement with Somali Puntland, Ethiopia, and other states and quasi-states deepens, so will China’s implicit and explicit commitments, be they through official obligations or simply the assumed responsibility to safeguard prior investments in local relationships, Chinese citizens, and key infrastructure. Another distinct disadvantage of increased Chinese military engagement, particularly the forward-deployment of advanced military capabilities such as carriers, aircraft, and expeditionary ground formations, is that these assets will then be on full display for intelligence exploitation by U.S. and other Western powers already in the region.[xxxv] While the PLA is most definitely leveraging the close proximity of its Djiboutian base to monitor and collect intelligence on American and other Western assets stationed at Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. is assuredly responding in kind. Finally, the PRC possesses limited high-end assets, such as aircraft carriers, meaning that the forward-deployment of such limited assets also reduces their ability to fulfill the traditional defensive requirement of the homeland. Until there are more of these key assets available, it is likely that the CCP will elect to keep them closer to home. 


Risks for the United States


Increasing Chinese presence in the HoA, particularly if the U.S. does not take proactive measures to respond, poses potential risks to US and Western interests. While it is unlikely that the PRC intentionally desires to degrade the US’s interests in the HoA, continued American inaction raises the risk to the U.S. diplomatic isolation, loss of regional influence, erosion of its military advantage both regionally and globally, and economic exclusion from rapidly developing African markets and key natural resources. As the PRC pursues its own agenda in the region, a passive U.S. might see its own interest undermined. Therefore, it is instructive to explore these potential risks with an eye toward mitigating their impact and generating options for proactive responses.


Diplomatically, the PRC's persistent outreach to regional powers, especially Ethiopia, undoubtedly threatens to isolate the U.S. from the indigenous seats of power in the HoA. For many developing countries, China is the emerging as the diplomatic "partner of choice" given Beijing's disinterest in the internal functions and human rights record of potential partners.[xxxvi] In addition, alleged espionage notwithstanding, the PRC garnered considerable diplomatic goodwill through the donation of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2012. Undoubtedly, governments in the region recognize that the PRC's interest in diplomatic outreach are far more transactional than that displayed by the U.S., but it is also much more consistent. US interest in the HoA focuses predominantly on security threats emanating from Somalia, whereas the PRC has laid out a broader interest in the region that threatens to reduce avenues for US engagement and influence.


Informationally, China advocates for a global system that resonates well with countries in the HoA. Rather than pushing for an interventionist global world order based on the supremacy of liberal democracy, the PRC leads with a message of economic development, direct foreign investment, and non-interference in domestic affairs.[xxxvii] This shrewd messaging has won China a growing bloc of diplomatic allies and limited US influence in the region. The Trump Administration's recent decision to deemphasize liberal democratic ideals in its interactions with foreign countries may help check this trend, though time will tell. The continued outsized growth in China's influence will limit the ability of the U.S. to leverage its influence among regional powers. The way China wields its own influence will be indicative of their future intentions for the region.


Militarily, increased Chinese engagement in the HoA poses several considerable risks to the U.S. and its interests. Particularly in Djibouti, the proximity of China's permanent facility undermines American military supremacy. As the Chinese military presence in the region increases, it will be better positioned to threaten American commercial and military maritime traffic through the Red Sea. Short of a declared conflict, the PLA can and does use its permanent facilities to monitor US and other Western military activity in the region. In late April 2018, US officials alleged that Chinese-employed military lasers at its Djibouti facility temporarily blinded American military pilots operating in the local airspace.[xxxviii] As previously discussed, China's control of Djibouti's main port may give the PRC a distinct military advantage in any future conflict. China's military buildup in the HoA poses substantial risks, both currently and in any potential war.


Economically, the PRC's interest in the HoA's emerging markets has prompted considerable investment and market penetration. Meanwhile, US companies have largely ignored the region, ceding ground to a massive influx of Chinese companies.[xxxix] Any potential risk stemming from the U.S.’s lack of economic engagement when compared to Chinese investment will directly depend upon the future growth of those African markets. These markets have yet to prove themselves as fundamental game changers in the overall global economy, thought their strong growth suggests potential for impending importance.[xl] African markets continue to be a growing segment of the overall global market, and may be poised to assume a greater share of total trade. Because of this, the U.S. might eventually regret the decision not to decisively engage on the ground floor of East Africa's economy.


The PRC's increased activity in the HoA poses considerable risks to the U.S. and its interests.  The greatest of these risks only manifest at their worst in the event of continued American inaction. China's pursuit of its own interests in the region, if unaddressed, will further isolate the U.S. diplomatically, undermine its ability to influence regional powers, reduce its ability to maintain military superiority in the HoA, and prevent the U.S. from benefiting from emerging commercial markets. It is likely that the PRC does not view its relationship with the U.S. in the region primarily as adversarial, though tensions are simply an unavoidable fact of China’s rise. As indicated before, it is unwise to view China's rise in the HoA region as a "zero-sum game” bound to disadvantage the U.S. If properly prepared, the U.S. would be ideally postured to maximize opportunities presented by China's whole-of-government approach to expanding its presence in the region.


Opportunities for the United States


While increased Chinese military engagement in HoA does pose significant risks to U.S. national interests, it also presents a number of unique opportunities the U.S. should leverage to reinforce global stability and advance African interests shared by the U.S. and PRC. For example, Chinese interaction in HoA deepens the PRC’s diplomatic engagement in the broader global community, thereby increasing opportunities to interact with Chinese diplomats, professional officers, and other official functionaries who support outreach in developing region such as the HOA. Such Chinese interaction presents an opportunity for American diplomats and government officials to better understand their counterparts and negotiate for shared interests. Historically, consistent diplomatic engagement, such as that promoted by the PRC, is one of the best means of avoiding foreign misunderstanding and unintended conflict escalation.


Diplomatically, the PRC's increased engagement in the HoA presents a number of key opportunities for the U.S. For instance, the expressed desire by the CCP to deepen its diplomatic interaction with both regional African powers and Western states operating in the region increases the potential touch points by which the U.S. can encourage China to fully assume its role as a responsible global power. The iterative process of positive diplomatic interaction with African nations would help codify for the PRC a more accountable set of norms and standards by which China can interact with the broader world. As previously discussed, the implicit commitments by the PRC in the HoA will further obligate China to behave as a benevolent global superpower.


Regarding PRC informational initiatives, increased engagement in the HoA will likely have a moderating effect upon the PRC's propaganda efforts led by the CPS. The more audiences that the CPS attempts to reach through its messaging, the more diverse it will have to make those messages. For instance, pro-socialism messages, which may have worked effectively in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, will probably find less fertile ground in contemporary Africa. Even "socialism with Chinese characteristics" will probably not adequately resonate in African countries possessing immature economies.[xli] To reach these audiences, Chinese messaging will likely need to focus on shared economic interests and desires for self-determination, two areas with suitable overlap between Chinese and Western ideas.[xlii] This necessary moderation and diffusion of focus will spread to other areas of Chinese messaging operations. The overlap of interests between the U.S. and China will also create opportunities for US and Western influence.


Militarily, China's increased engagement in the HoA presents exceptional opportunities for the U.S. to influence China’s military professionalization. Ongoing Chinese counterpiracy operations, well as the expected expansion of Chinese naval activity in the region will likely necessitate increased training exchanges, combined exercises, and multinational operations between Chinese and American forces. Currently, the PLAN participates in combined UN naval operations off Somalia as well as the U.S. hosted “Rim of the Pacific” (RIMPAC) exercises.[xliii] Such consistent interaction only increases the shared understanding of and appreciation for respective nations’ tactics, techniques, procedures and military culture.[xliv] This increased understanding and interaction should result in further professionalization of China’s military forces as they seek to emulate their Western counterparts. Increased professionalization will limit the dangers of misunderstandings and mistakes that might lead to unintended escalation between Chinese and Western forces. In almost any scenario short of open warfare, China's increased military engagement in the HoA and its increased professionalization will result in a net positive for US security interests.


Economically, the PRC's expanding investment and access into the HoA's developing economies presents additional opportunities for the U.S. China’s increased integration into the global market will lower its incentives to destabilize the existing global order. As these economic markets increase in importance to China, they also become obligations requiring additional attention and maintenance. As such, they become pressure points for exploitation during engagements short of war as well as more traditional conflicts. Economic sanctions and market manipulation can influence Chinese behavior long before open warfare becomes necessary. In times of open warfare, China's sea lines of communication will require defense by the PLAN.[xlv] As previously discussed, this concern factored heavily in the PRC’s 2015 military strategy. With these expanded economic and associated security obligations, the U.S. can leverage its superior military might to both influence Chinese behavior in the "gray zone" prior to war as well as across the entire conflict spectrum.


Many Chinese alarmists focus predominantly on the risks to US interests posed by China's expanding agenda in the HoA. If the U.S. views China's entrance in the region primarily through an adversarial lens, it is bound to fuel China’s own suspicions leading to predictably negative responses by the PRC. There are certainly challenges to US interests posed by China’s recent expansion in the HoA, but the opportunities for the U.S. are also considerable. Deeper military cooperation and deconfliction of operations between the U.S. and China would reduce the chances of unintended consequences while improving professional understanding in both forces. The U.S. should take advantage of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic opportunities presented by China's increased interaction in the region to advance mutual interests and reinforce China's rise as a responsible global actor.




The last decade has witnessed a profound shift in the CCP’s perspective on China’s role as an emerging global power.  The PRC’s evolving outlook has led China to pursue expanded interaction in several important regions in the developing world. Starting at the turn of the century, the CCP began to progressively abandon the inward-focused defensive posture that characterized the first several decades of the PRC in favor of a more outward-looking approach, one fueled by increased domestic stability, modernized force projection capabilities, and growing worldwide economic interests. Particularly in the HoA, the CCP has pursued greater engagement to advance many interrelated diplomatic, ideological, military, and economic objectives. Diplomatically, China seeks to expand its international network of aligned states. 


The PRC finds particularly fertile ground in the developing world, where China’s success serves as a model for developing countries, such as those in the HoA. Informationally, China works to spread its concepts of nonintervention in domestic affairs and encourage the formation of local poles of influence such as in Ethiopia. Militarily, China wants the ability to rapidly respond to emerging contingencies, develop overseas force projection and other operational capabilities, and strategically pre-position its forces to leverage both psychological and actual military advantage over potential adversaries. Economically, China needs secure and persistent access to emerging markets where it might both acquire necessary resources and export its goods. The PRC pursues this engagement strategy through a number of mutually supportive means, from high-level diplomatic engagement, investment in critical infrastructure, integration of local economic markets, deployment of military forces, training exchanges, and combined exercises. This approach results in many advantages, though it also exposes the PRC to several key disadvantages that, thus far, China has adequately managed. Finally, while the PRC’s expanded engagement in the HoA does pose considerable risks to US interests in the region, this engagement also presents several opportunities that the U.S. should consider in an effort to work constructively with the PRC to maintain global stability and advance shared interests. 


End Notes


[i] John Lee, “China Comes to Djibouti,” Foreign Affairs, April 23, 2015, accessed May 7, 2018,

[ii] Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 27-31.

[iii] Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

[iv] Ellis Joffe, “’People's War under Modern Conditions’: A Doctrine for Modern War,” The China Quarterly (No. 112, December 1987), 555-571, accessed May 7, 2018,

[v] Seth Faison, “Deng Xiaoping Is Dead At 92; Architect Of Modern China,” New York Times, February 20, 1997, accessed May 7, 2018,

[vi] June Teufel Dreyer, “Deng Xiaoping and Modernization of the Chinese Military,” Armed Forces and Society (Winter 1988), 215-231, accessed May 7, 2018,

[vii] Roger Cliff, China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities, (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 11.

[viii] Yun Sun, “China’s Increasing Interest in Africa: Benign but Hardly Altruistic,” Brookings Institute, April 5, 2013, accessed May 7, 2018,

[ix] Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri, and Irene Yuan Sun, “The closest look yet at Chinese economic engagement in Africa,” McKinsey and Company, June 2017, accessed May 7, 2018,

[x] Devin Thorne and Ben Spevak, “Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments are Strategically Reshaping the Indo-Pacific,” C4ADS, April 17, 2018, accessed May 7, 2018, 16,

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Categories: Africa - China - Horn of Africa

About the Author(s)

Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to ASD SO/LIC while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Doug served for a decade on active duty as first an Infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Military History from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Course. Doug is the National Director for External Communications for the Special Forces Association and the National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020-21 Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.