Masked motives in China's anti-piracy push
By Bright B Simons

ACCRA, Ghana - Chinese Rear Admiral Du Jingchen's Lushan naval contingent is settling into the Gulf of Aden, where its objective is ostensibly to secure the shipping lanes straddling the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean as part, presumably, of an international effort to sustain vital commerce in an important corridor of world trade.

Some analysts, however, are drawing broader inferences from this new development, viewing it in the light of China's relative inactivity in the regional effort to combat piracy across the Pacific, in the Malacca Strait, the Mekong Delta and elsewhere.

A new lens is being trained on China's actions, one that is preset to reveal previously under-highlighted links to the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia (recall that the first public statement of the naval deployment came during a Chinese donation of a reported US$400 million to Uganda for peacekeeping operations in Somalia), the security of the Sudanese oil crescent, the latent Eritrean terror connection, and above all America's late but conclusive movement to the view of the Horn of Africa as a geostrategic shelf of the post-September 11, 2001, world.

To the last point one must hasten to add in clarification that the United States has always considered the Horn of Africa in somewhat idiosyncratic terms, which is certainly why the region, together with Egypt, was placed under the charge of US Central Command, while the rest of continental Africa endured the benign neglect of the US European Command.

And since at least 2002, when the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established, the principle has been to consider the Horn of Africa as contiguous with the Middle East in the assessment of operational options. But there is no doubting the growing clarity within the corridors of power in Washington of the importance of that idiosyncrasy as a factor in the new conception of inter-regional security in which the Middle East is merely at the core of a "global concentricity of risk".

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.

It is intriguing how the pattern continues, even as the individual pieces alter in shape, position and direction.

In June of last year, police in the breakaway region of Somaliland in Northern Somalia made an arrest that suggests strongly that Chinese operatives of uncertain affiliation were working with Yemenis in shadowy activities that may involve espionage-related gun-running.

There have similarly been reports of a Chinese presence through Eritrean proxies in peace-building operations in the Eastern Sudan with the obvious aim of securing the 1,500-kilometer oil pipe that feeds Sudan's oil through the Red Sea into Chinese chimneys in Guangdong. (Contrast this with the US's persistent condemnation of Eritrean elements of fueling the Islamist insurrection in Somalia, and its dismissive attitude towards engagement with the Asmara elite.)

Unconfirmed reports also suggest a major expansion of Chinese installations in another Red Sea state, Djibouti, even as tensions between the latter and brigand elements in Somalia rise.

Incidents of this sort are even more interesting because, for several years now, PLA-dominated "multinationals" like Norinco and the Poly Group have been sharpening the capacity of Beijing to match the flair the West once showed in intermixing commerce, investment, arms trading and influence-peddling to minimize the scope for nationalist repercussions (the Horn of Africa receives roughly 70% of China's direct investment into Africa).

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.

Along such a line of reasoning, even the choice of the South Sea Fleet in the ongoing expedition in the Gulf of Aden attains a certain sort of importance.

The South Sea Fleet is, from a close reading of literature, that component of the PLA Navy most specialized in dealing with hot geostrategic deadlock (strategic combat) by virtue of its present and historical orientations towards Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and the Philippines, all of which, particularly with regards to the Philippines, bring into play America's South China Sea posture. Japan is another matter altogether.

When all is said, it is far from difficult to lay out the pieces in the Gulf of Aden with respect to a "strategic combat" configuration.

China considers the Middle East treacherous and apparently prefers to undertake its penetration by circumnavigation, and Africa offers favorable currents for its choice of trajectory, which is not to say that the continent in and of itself is not a destination.

Readers may recall that for several years, well into the Dengist reform era, Beijing preferred to use Hong Kong, Macau and the intermediation of guanxi - defined loosely as personal connections - to effect an entry into the global capitalist regime, even while it consolidated its holds on these Asian outposts of economic freedom.

Observers may call this "expansionism by a thousand strides" (in obvious reference to the more macabre phrase, "death by a thousand cuts") without too much loss of accuracy. Rear Admiral Jingchen's Lushan navy will hunt a few pirates for sure, but only because prudence requires that they not draw too much attention to their greater and broader focus well beyond the rugged Somali coast.

One wonders though whether Washington is braced for this latest escalation of the strategic stakes.

Bright B Simons is acting convener of the upcoming Sino-African Virtual Institute at IMANI Center for Policy and Education, in Accra, Ghana, and a freelance contributor to Asia Times Online.