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Inside China: Long march to Africa

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China is set to establish military bases in key spots of Africa, directly challenging the military presence of the U.S. and the European Union.

Last year, China surpassed the EU, the U.S. and Japan as Africa's largest trading partner, with $160 billion in total trade volume. Thousands of Chinese companies are operating in Africa, and Beijing invested more than $40 billion on the continent last year. And it is poised to go far beyond that number this year.

In 2007, the U.S. set up its ninth unified combatant command — U.S. Africa Command or Africom — but it is based in Stuttgart, Germany.

Finding an African country to host Africom has not been easy. So far, only Liberia has said it would be willing to host the command's headquarters, despite the fact that most African nations welcome America's military presence.

China has been adroit in playing the anti-colonialism card in the region to diminish the West's military influence in Africa. It cultivated a few key strategic spots as the People's Liberation Army's African outposts. Chief among them is Zimbabwe, under the ruinous dictatorship of China's longtime ideological fellow traveler Robert Mugabe.

During the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union competed with each other in Africa for the leadership of communist movement in the Third World. In what was then Rhodesia, Moscow had its proxy in Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union. Beijing supported Nkomo's rival, Mr. Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union. When Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe in 1980, Mr. Mugabe became the new nation's first Marxist president — and Beijing has retained an important strategic outpost in Africa ever since.

Yet the military value of Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe did not become a practical consideration until China's recent economic rise. In the meantime, Mr. Mugabe is ruining his country with his irrational and thuggish anti-market policies.

Last year, China spent $100 million to build Mr. Mugabe a "National Defense University" in the capital, Harare, as a hub from which to establish a Zimbabwe-centered pro-China regional military alliance called the Southern African Development Community. The university has since been partially staffed by Chinese and Pakistani military instructors.

Mr. Mugabe has received several large financial bailout packages from his comrades in Beijing over the years, and now the Chinese are on the verge of giving his an aid package worth $27 billion.

In return, as exposed in the German-based Telescope News and reported by The Zimbabwean newspaper, Beijing is setting up a military base, China's first in Africa, near Zimbabwe's diamond-mining paradise Marange. The Chinese base is said to be equipped with advanced radar systems and flashy facilities.

In addition to Zimbabwe, China is courting other African "choke point" nations such as Djibouti, on whom Beijing has been generous in its spending.

Last week, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan paid a special visit to Djibouti.

"The People's Republic of China is ready to support Djibouti to reinforce its military capacities and guarantee its security," Gen. Chang announced after meeting with Djibouti defense chief Hassan Darar Houffaneh, who acknowledged: "In the subregion, especially Djibouti, most infrastructure projects are being funded by China."

China also is building an arms supply network to African countries that include Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt. Weapons systems that have been or are being sold include China's P-18N offshore naval patrol vessels, 155 mm NORINCO PLZ 45 howitzers, and some new unmanned aerial vehicles.

It may be a long march for Beijing to fully establish its military presence in Africa, but the race has begun.

Miles Yu's column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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