Essay from NBR Special Report no. 98
China’s Ports in Africa
This essay finds that Chinese firms are rapidly developing Africa’s ports as platforms for the integrated political, economic, and military presence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in each of the continent’s subregions.
Chinese firms are now leading builders, bankers, owners, and operators of ports in Africa. They have quickly achieved significant scale and scope across the continent, using modern, deepwater ports to drive Chinese trade and promote investment in other economic projects past the pier. Several state-owned enterprises have been moving up the value chain in the sector, taking long-term control over ownership and operations of port assets instead of just building them on contracts. Such ports provide robust platforms for China’s economic, political, and diplomatic access in Africa. They also establish ready sites for civil-military dual use. Chinese companies evidently pursue these projects to access African markets and resources, but also to advance broader Chinese foreign policy goals that are competitive with U.S. interests in Africa.
- Chinese firms pursue commercial and political incentives within an overall foreign policy framework. So long as PRC foreign policy continues to promote development of African ports as a means to greater access on the continent, Chinese firms will enjoy major cost and scale advantages in further building out Africa’s maritime transport network. The practical policy questions revolve around how to adjust to this reality and mitigate China’s exercise of undue influence through its position in African ports.
- The U.S. will not directly compete with China in developing and operating port infrastructure in Africa. But with enhanced U.S. coordination with local allies and partners (including their port and logistics firms) on prioritized countries and projects, Chinese firms can be kept from achieving market dominance. The U.S. can likely remain the great-power partner of choice for key African nations by providing superior security and technology.
- Even if Equatorial Guinea does not ultimately agree to host a Chinese military base, some other African state or states will eventually do so. A small number of People’s Liberation Army bases will not tip the Atlantic naval balance nor fundamentally change the basic security dynamics in Africa, but it will alter perceptions of China’s long-term objectives and intensify competition with the U.S.
Isaac Kardin is an Assistant Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.