Wednesday 14 April 2021
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Namibia and China: The historical military ties

FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2012 file photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, sailors stand at attention on the deck of China's aircraft carrier "Liaoning" in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, as China formally entered its first aircraft carrier into service. As President Barack Obama tours Southeast Asia to push his year-old pivot to the Pacific policy, the big question on everybody's mind is how much of a role Washington, with its mighty military and immense diplomatic clout, can play in keeping the Pacific peaceful. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming, File) NO SALES

…Contextualising China’s strategic military goal in Namibia

Since January 2015, there has been much talk in the media about China’s efforts to establish a military base in Namibia. It is reported that the Namibian Ambassador to China held talks with Chinese military officials about the construction of a naval base at the Port of Walvis Bay. However, Chinese and Namibian authorities vehemently denied such claims, as stated and declared by Chinese defence minister on Agence France-Presse in January 2015.  Apart from this media controversy, Namibia is one of many African countries that have close ties with China. Those ties exist at different levels in the political and economic, as well as military and security domains.

China between SWAPO and the issue of Walvis Bay  Namibia was under the control of the German Empire after 1884, but became subject to South Africa by a decision of the League of Nations after the end of World War I. In 1958, South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was created to fight for the liberation of Namibia. During the same period, the organisation sent volunteers for military training in China. When the issue of Namibian independence was posed at the United Nations in 1971, Beijing supported Namibia’s claims for separation from South Africa. Moreover, China sought to strengthen its influence in southern Africa after the military coup in Portugal in 1974 ended the European country’s presence in Angola, northern Namibia, and Mozambique. In 1973, China voted for United Nations General Assembly’s resolution that would recognize SWAPO as the legitimate and sole representative of the Namibian people, and supported its negotiations for independence. However, the status of Walvis Bay Port was the biggest obstacle in the negotiations during this period   the Western Contact Group (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, and Canada) called for a self-determination referendum in South West Africa (now Namibia) in January 1977, but South Africa refused, and instead maintained sovereignty over the Port of Walvis Bay.

In fact, although the UK was part of Western Contact Group, the port was subject to the British Navy. During this time, the UK was defending its strategic naval sites around the world, such as those in Cyprus, Gibraltar, Kenya, the Suez Canal, Aden in South Yemen, and the Falkland Islands south of Argentina. These ports were increasingly important for Britain as it faced the rise of the US Navy following the end of World War II. Meanwhile, China insisted on South Africa’s withdrawal from Walvis Bay Port. Independent Namibia and the geo-economic interests of China Namibia obtained its independence from South Africa in 1990, and was recognized by China on March 20 of the same year. China and Namibia established diplomatic relations forthwith on March 22, 1990, as they signed agreements on economic and technical co-operation. But despite the independence of Namibia, the Port of Walvis Bay remained under the control of South Africa until Nelson Mandela came to power and handed over the port to Namibia in 1994.

Sino-Namibian relations have developed extensively after the visit of the Namibian president to China in 2005 and the opening of the Namibian Embassy in Beijing. This period was marked by China’s interest in developing co-operation with Namibia in the fields of tourism, education, health, investment in energy and metals, media and communication, as well as in the infrastructure sector. In particular, investment in uranium is one of the most strategic economic drivers of China’s interest in Namibia, since Beijing has a programme to build more than 100 nuclear reactors in the future. Furthermore, China started working on energy exploration in the northern coast of Namibia in recent years. The development of China’s economic and trade relations with Namibia has also motivated Chinese businessmen to set up an export area surrounding Walvis Bay. Furthermore, this port is also considered as a key that connects Chinese interests with both Botswana and Zimbabwe, both of which are landlocked. The development of these economic relations has resulted in the settlement of a large Chinese community in Namibia.

In fact, the geo-economic importance of Walvis Bay Port has caused a lot speculation about China’s ambition to create a naval base in the port, including speculation from the Namibian media which stated that 2 600 tonnes of military material has reached the harbour, arguing that it was destined for Zimbabwe. Regardless of the accuracy of these analyses, it is reasonable to discuss future scenarios regarding the “port” since Chinese-Namibian military relations are growing rapidly.  China has trained many military cadres from Namibia in the military academy of Shanghai. It also built the Namibian military academy and military museum in Okahandja. Furthermore, it is important to note that China has also set up a station for space research in the city of Swakopmund, which is not far from Walvis Bay, which works in coordination with other Chinese stations at the Port of Malindi on the Kenyan coast and the Port of Karachi in Pakistan. Some American studies have argued that those stations are being used for military purposes. Since January 2015, mutual visits between Chinese military officials and their counterparts from both Namibia and Angola have become more frequent. On March 30, 2015, Chinese Minister of Defence, Chang Wanquan, visited Namibia, and then Angolan Minister of Defence, João Lourenço, paid a visit to China on September 21, 2015, directly followed by a visit of Namibian Minister of Defence Penda Ya Ndakolo on September 22 of the same year, the Angolan Defence Minister visited China again in February 2016.

So, it seems that there is rivalry between Namibia and Angola regarding military relations with China as the two countries vie to develop the Port of Walvis Bay and the Luanda port, respectively, as a Chinese strategic naval position in the south Atlantic. “After all, we can track Chinese military relations in Africa to argue that Beijing has confirmed its military presence in the western Indian Ocean by establishing a military base in Djibouti and building a special relationship with Kenya.  However, the latest reports from China and news agencies claim that due to escalating US pressure on China in South China Sea and growing interest in the economic benefits in Antarctica, China is now looking to secure its military presence in the south Atlantic, and is therefore working to strengthen military ties with Namibia and Angola. Inescapably, China will require Walvis Bay Port in Namibia for military purposes, to use it as a private naval base, or as a multi-tasking logistical port. But the challenge for China is how it will deal with Brazilian naval strategy, on one hand, which announced that the security of the region relies upon countries bordering the south Atlantic Ocean, and Britain’s stance on the other, since it has a presence on many islands in the region.

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