china: China sails unhindered in Somali waters
China is one country which has been deliberately trying to project itself as a saviour and a good friend to all poor nations seeking aid and relief material. However, rarely as seen in other instances, has any extension of help from the Chinese been benign without any ulterior motives.
China, which apparently knows the modus-operandi of the Somali pirates in hijacking and looting ships sailing through the Red Sea, adjacent to Somaliland, has worked out a strategy to counter this menace in the garb of numerous bilateral trade agreements with the Somali establishment. China and Somalia even agreed (in July 2020) to conduct joint patrols in the Red sea area.
China has other plans for Somalia as well. The Chinese are aware about its long coast-line with extensive stocks of fish making it one of the richest fishing grounds in the region. Thus, to exploit tuna and other valuable species of fish off the Somali coast, China managed to arrange fishing licenses for upto 31 vessels to function in the region. These vessels are related to the China Overseas Fisheries Association, a distant-water trawling group created in 2012 to promote the Asian giant’s competitive fishing edge abroad.
To ensure that the advantages of fishing off the Somali coast are not lost to other international players in unnecessary competition, China started engaging in capacity building exercises and transferring skills/technology to Somalis to improve their production capacity in this field. Chinese technicians also imparted training to locals over usage of latest techniques in fishing in order to facilitate large scale buying from the locals involved in the trade that would directly benefit the Chinese markets. For unhindered fishing transportation, China used the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation limited (CCECC) to sign (in 2019) an agreement with the Somalian authorities to build a modern fishing port facility in Red sea town of Eyl in Nugal region.
Guaranteeing constant supply, from this port, fish would be exported to the Chinese Sea food market. The CCECC is also constructing a road linking Eyl to Dangorayo in Nugaal Region to enable seamless transportation of the goods that would be accessed at the port. Earlier, in 2016, the Company was also awarded licenses to carry out exploration for Oil and Gas in two blocks in Puntland region of Somalia. As part of the entire infrastructure buildup of the country, CCECC was also authorised to construct the Galkayo Airport. In addition, several CCECC- affiliated companies have been given fishing licenses to operate along the coastal territories.
Though, China’s investment in Somalia may be less compared to other African countries, nevertheless there has been a significant year-on-year increase of nearly 15% in the bilateral trade volume between the two countries. China’s exports to Somalia amount to nearly US$ one billion whereas import hardly touches US$ 20 million. As in the colonial times, the Chinese strategy in present day Africa has been to sell its products to nearly all African nations which have become readymade markets for Chinese manufacturing firms & import precious metals/minerals from these different countries to China at negligible prices.
China is eyeing Uranium-rich Somalia to grant licenses for mining. In the meantime, there are considerable chances that illegal Uranium mining is already being done in the country by terrorists and being exported to certain controversial countries that have arguably developed Uranium enrichment facilities with tacit Chinese support.
“China is growing in spite of the pandemic and thus its appetite for minerals inter alia is also expanding. Therefore China is getting into mining directly rather than just importing what it wants. Countries in Africa should be aware of how the Chinese operate mines in Africa in an extremely mercantile manner without bothering about the harm to environment and the communities. For example, in copper mines in Zambia there have been instances of vicious clashes and many Zambians were killed. Not only that, but the Chinese refused to pay windfall profits tax which the Zambian government imposed on all mines so that it could buttress its high debt ridden economy. More often than not for the Chinese in all their projects in the developing world it is always a win situation for them and a losing situation for the host country. Dissent is easily purchased due to high governance deficit in most developing countries,” according to Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General CUTS International, a noted Indian think tank that has presence across African capitals for decades.
China has been accused by several countries of selling used arms/armoured vehicles to nations. In Somalia too, the Chinese have allegedly done weapon deals involving used equipments, worn out vehicles etc. In 2017, the Chinese Army (People’s Liberation Army – PLA) provided second hand, painted with camouflage patters, 12 Chinese developed ‘Tiger’ type light armoured vehicles to the Somali National Army belonging to this category.
More shockingly, the Chinese in their greed for power and influence are known to have provided weapons/ ammunition to armed groups, rebels and insurgents in different countries irrespective of their dismal human rights records/ abuses and violations. In Somalia, which is already battling terrorist groups & pirates who thrive on illegal activities, a UN investigation team found that 15 Chinese-made rocket-assisted grenade launchers were being used by the Somali pirates. When confronted with this detail, China refused to cooperate with the UN investigators who had traced the source of the weapons. As such, China mostly sells arms to different arms dealers and given the multiple layers involved in these clandestine deals, tracking these consignments to China becomes a particularly arduous task.
While a good number of Somali nationals are settled in the Chinese City of Guangzhou, mainly to collaborate with the Chinese authorities and the business community to bring in more investments into Somalia, nothing seems to be happening in that direction. Instead, through various infrastructure projects that are initiated with the idea of increasing debt, it is the Chinese who are at an advantage. In fact, the Somali government awarded the prestigious Government Office building project to Zhao Yong, a real estate businessman from Shanxi without any bidding or competition for US$ 800,000.
For all the effort that China has been putting into Somalia, portraying the same as being for the benefit of the country’s citizens, China has also built its own network in the process and gained Somalia’s support at the United Nations when voting was held for the controversial Hong Kong national security law. But the darker side of China is yet to be seen by Somalia. That reality is probably just striking Somalia as was noticed in the case of the Government’s deal to rebuild the Mogadishu seaport through a loan. The deal apparently relies on an exchange for exclusive Chinese fishing privileges along the Somali coastline & partial control of the harbour till the debt is paid off; in the absence of which Somalia is likely to lose its sovereign rights over this seaport, becoming yet another Sri Lanka caught in the Chinese Debt Trap.
Much to China’s chagrin, terrorist organisations especially radical Islamist groups have begun to take note of China’s rise and its exploitative measures in different parts of the world, including the African continent. In recent times, Al-Shabab – a terrorist organization in Somalia, which has an alliance with the Al-Qaida, and still exercises good control on Central and Southern parts of Somalia, did attack the Chinese embassy and its assets in an attempt to safeguard the country’s strategic interests. Al-Shabab collects taxes from major parts of the country and generates revenue which is considered much more than that of the official Somali government. It remains to be seen however against the backdrop of Chinese talks with groups like the Taliban, how the dynamics across militant groups, Africa, Islamist terror and China will pan out in the times to come.
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