Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

China's Motives for Being Off Somalia -"Localized Strategic Combat"

One view of why China decided to play in the anti-piracy effort off Somalis found here:
In the same vein, China's posture in the Horn of Africa since the 1970s demonstrates a longstanding appreciation of the aforementioned fusion of Horn of Africa-Gulf area geopolitical dynamics. Middle Eastern and Arab Gulf countries have consistently armed and supported the Islamist cause in the Horn by supplying Eritrean separatists, helping Somalia back Ogaden nationalists in Ethiopia and providing diplomatic leverage to Sudanese hardliners whenever the latter have had to confront growing Western and local "bourgeois" pressure, not even to mention the Mombasa/Zanzibar sort of Arab engagement with Africa's evolving inter-religious mosaic. Not once did China waver in its commitment to be relevant.

Declassified files of the US diplomatic/espionage outpost in Asmara, Eritrea, depict a fascinating level of Chinese activity during the 1970s, especially around the period when political and inter-ethnic strife succeeded in ripping Eritrea from Ethiopia. In the decade that followed, China eventually displaced both the Soviet Union and the US in another high-activity zone in the region, Somalia.

During the last years of the regime of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, Beijing was virtually the strongman's only trusted geopolitical handler. Even then China had perfected the formula of arms for natural resources. In exchange for the right to trawl in Somalia's seas, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) set about the task of crafting an air force for the increasingly beleaguered Barre, who was ousted in 1991.
Norinco for instance has grown adept at using its more innocuous operations to mask its core interest in arms commerce by initiating civil joint ventures in Ethiopia, Kenya and even, as the above incident illustrates, in the highest-risk environments where Chinese interests require the direct reshaping of local realities.

Indeed, only in this latter sense does China's persistence in considering investments in Puntland, Somaliland and elsewhere in Greater Somalia make sense - that is it involves a willingness, if need be, to engage in "localized strategic combat".

The phrase, "localized strategic combat" is inherently related to "global concentricity of risk". By "strategic combat", the reference is to a concept of great power competition in which persistent escalation of the stakes of conflict occurs in tandem with an indefinite postponement of actual armed conflict.

The battle defines the war in a long drawn-out process in which the great powers, in this case China and the US, contend for the spoils of war without concluding the battle. Rather than a series of skirmishes with alternating victors, strategic combat consists in continuous, increasingly harmonized contention with every resource, interest and position at play: any hint of "victory" for one side at any point has implications too severe to be contemplated.

Any localized variant of this kind of battle formation has integrity only in relation to the structure of the strategic theater. Readers skeptical about the connection of this worldview with the Horn of Africa situation may be well advised to pay close attention to the testimony of David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, to the US Congress in the summer of 2005.
Ambassador Shinn's remarks can be found here:
What does China want for all of its effort in Africa? It wants access to natural resources, especially oil but also gas, copper, iron, fish, timber, etc. It wants to sell goods and services in a market that totals more than 870 million people and is growing rapidly. It wants legitimacy, support for its one China policy, understanding for its approach to human rights, and votes in organizations like the UN and its specialized agencies, IMF and WTO. It wants to be a major player on the world stage on its own, not Western, terms. One way to achieve this is to develop geopolitical clout among Africa's fifty-three nations.

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