Chinese navy steers a course for African ports in Beijing’s renewed diplomatic push

On March 23, the ships arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a five-day stopover before heading to the port of Maputo in Mozambique on April 1 for another five-day tour.

While in Tanzania, representatives visited the Dar es Salaam Station of the Tazara Railway, as well as the Chinese Experts Cemetery where they paid their respects to those who died during the railway’s construction.

Before that, the 45th naval fleet had completed an anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia.

It has since been replaced by the 46th Chinese naval escort task force, which includes the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Jiaozuo, the Type 054A missile frigate Xuchang, and the Type 903A replenishment vessel Honghu, with over 700 crew members including dozens of special forces personnel and two helicopters on board.

State broadcaster CCTV reported in December that by the end of 2023, the PLA Navy had escorted more than 7,200 vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia in more than 1,600 missions.


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The recent deployment of vessels to the region comes at a time when Red Sea trade routes have been paralysed following attacks on commercial ships by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are protesting Israel’s military operations in Gaza.
But it was not just the Gulf of Aden that saw Chinese vessels last year. During 2023, the PLA navy made port calls in Nigeria, Gabon, Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and South Africa.
David Shinn, a China-Africa expert and professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the PLA Navy is resuming a practice that it had institutionalised before the pandemic when its ships would make calls at African and Indian Ocean ports, usually after completion of a three or four-month anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

Shinn said that, except for routine calls that continued throughout the pandemic in Djibouti in connection with the anti-piracy patrol, port visits in Africa were paused in 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The port calls did not resume until February 2023, Shinn said, with a trilateral exercise involving naval vessels from China, Russia and South Africa off the South African coast, dubbed Mosi, which means smoke in the local Tswana language.

This was followed by naval visits at ports in West Africa in July 2023, he said, and now the current visits to Tanzania, Mozambique – and probably a few more African ports before this series is finished.

Shinn said some of these visits have involved exercises with other navies and often gifts of low-cost items such as sports equipment are given.

“[The visits] provide positive publicity for both China and the African host,” Shinn said.

He noted that most of these countries also welcome visits by naval ships from Western nations, allowing leaders to demonstrate their “non-alignment”.

In Mozambique, local officers and soldiers visited the guided-missile frigate Linyi during its visit. Port calls such as this have begun to increase in number after they were paused during the pandemic. Photo: Xinhua

“China wants to cement the security relationship with African governments and port cities so that it can access them quickly in times of need,” Shinn said.

Paul Nantulya, a China specialist at the National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington, said the visit of the 45th naval fleet to Tanzania and Mozambique “forms part of what I like to call the PLA’s multipurpose employment of its naval task forces”.

Nantulya said the missions began in 2008 and have grown in duration, sophistication and tasks – with their main mission being anti-piracy patrols, primarily in the Gulf of Aden.

But Nantulya said the Chinese navy has used them for other missions, such as citizen evacuations in Libya, Yemen and Sudan, military exercises and drills with African forces, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and military diplomacy, as seen in the recent visits to Tanzania and Mozambique.
“These port calls reinforce Chinese strategic diplomacy, strengthen military to military ties, demonstrate China’s improving naval capabilities, and afford the PLA opportunities to market its military hardware to African customers,” Nantulya said. Algeria, for instance, has bought Chinese submarines.

Another benefit for the PLA Navy, Nantulya said, is the operational experience it gains, as well as the ability to test and field new equipment.

“All the assets China deploys into African waters are new or upgraded. The operational experience is critical as China has not fought a war since 1979,” Nantulya said.

And while not all the operations China conducts in African maritime domains are necessarily transferable to high intensity combat scenarios, he said they are better than nothing.


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Meanwhile, there are also benefits for the African countries. They get to demonstrate their strategic and diplomatic ties to China, expose their forces to foreign military practices and doctrine, and they get to achieve a level of interoperability, which is also a benefit to China, Nantulya said.

They also “increase their leverage to negotiate economic agreements with China in exchange for permitting the PLA to dock in their yards”, he said.

Naval visits are a recognised role for navies as they spread goodwill and show military prowess, according to Francois Vrey, a professor emeritus of military science and a research coordinator at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.

They also give an indication of China’s diplomatic intent in various political situations, Vrey added.

He said while China keeps ships on station in the northwest Indian Ocean, they are not the same vessels that visited Tanzania and Mozambique. The ships that made those visits were, however, recently involved in an exercise in the Arabian Sea with Russia and Iran. Also, amid the Red Sea crisis, Russian ships conducted exercises with the Djibouti Navy, right at the southern part of the Red Sea.
“This is about the diplomatic value of naval power to extend political influence given that the current Chinese administration elevated the oceans and maritime interests very close to the top of its overall policy plans and programmes architecture,” Vrey said.

He said the Chinese naval visits also show a presence on Africa’s east coast, but the programme for the visits are low-key and not in the same category as, for example, the Mosi exercise in South Africa.

“Navies are such versatile instruments of power and influence if one looks beyond the war-fighting domain,” he said.


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