After years, a Chinese-built port is being revived in the East African nation of Tanzania, the completion of which may provide strategic advantages to the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean.
Over the years, China has expanded its maritime footprint in the Indian Ocean Region by investing in key ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Doraleh in Djibouti.
Now, Tanzania has decided to revive the $10 billion port in Bagamoyo, reported Nikkei Asia.
Located about 75 km south of Tanzania’s major port Dar es Salaam, the Bagamoyo port could also provide China with an entry point to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the land beneath which lies an estimated $24 trillion of untapped mineral deposits, including gold, experts noted.
Some analysts argue that the Bagamoyo port may provide China with the opportunity to strengthen its strategic aims in the region. They say the port may be used as a ship repair hub for the Chinese PLA Navy, “or perhaps even more”. It is, after all, in Africa, that China established its only overseas military base in 2017 — in Djibouti.
Tanzania is considered a key aspect of China’s Maritime Silk Road project and the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The deal to construct the port at Bagamoyo was signed in 2013 by China’s largest port operator, China Merchants Holdings.
The agreement envisaged the construction of a large port at Bagamoyo, along with railway lines and a special economic zone, reported The Maritime Executive.
However, the deal was rejected by the Tanzanian government subsequently on the grounds that many demands made by the Chinese company were not beneficial to the East African nation.
A week before the decision for the revival of the Tanzanian port, a report by China’s state-owned CGTN highlighted the close ties between Beijing and Dodoma.
It said that the Chinese President Xi Jinping was looking forward to cooperation with Tanzania under BRI and expand it to diverse sectors such as agriculture, transport, telecommunication, tourism, and energy.
China’s Presence In Africa
China has been viewing the Indian Ocean in a much more cohesive manner than countries in the neighborhood, Darshana Baruah, an associate fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Nikkei Asia.
Many countries tend to forget the fact that Africa is an integral part of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it was noted that any attempt of establishing a port or facility in Africa, will have lesser resistance than a similar attempt in other portions of the Indian Ocean, whether in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, or Pakistan.
Following the Djibouti project in 2017, a second naval base in the Indian Ocean may solve China’s overt dependence on the Malacca Strait – the world’s busiest chokepoint, which is also known as China’s “Malacca Dilemma”.
Alternative bases in the Indian Ocean may prove advantageous for China in the event of a limited conflict in the Malacca Strait. “Even if something were to happen within the Malacca Strait, if they would have two bases or more facilities in the Indian Ocean, they can still continue their operations in the Indian Ocean region”, added Baruah.
A foothold in East Africa also has advantages in the case the Suez Canal faces a problem, similar to the recent incident when a 400-meter-long container vessel blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week.
In such a case, the 400-km wide channel between Madagascar and Mozambique can be used as an alternative route for shipping across Eastern Africa.
Over the years, China has expanded its maritime focus from the South and East China seas to the Indian Ocean. It is the only country to establish diplomatic missions in all six of the island nations in the Indian Ocean — Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros.
China In Indian Ocean Region
China’s interests in the Indian Ocean Region have increased manifold for various reasons. According to estimates, roughly 80 percent of China’s oil imports transit through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits, and about 95 percent of the country’s trade with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe also passes through the Indian Ocean.
From the perspective of China, this region has been under the control of its major adversaries – the US and India, according to an article by War On The Rocks. It says many Chinese experts view the Indian Ocean as the only way for China to expand its sea power.
Highlighting the need for China to establish bases in the Indian Ocean region, the report mentioned an analysis by three Chinese researchers who said that the lack of bases in the IOR is a major obstacle for the expansion of China’s national interests.
They believe that bases should be carefully chosen so that they can serve China’s maritime strategic interests. Such a list included Gwadar in Pakistan, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the Seychelles, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Djibouti, which has been serving as Chinese bases since 2017.
Growing Port Calls
The growing Chinese interest in the IOR can be gauged by the fact that prior to 1999, China did not have a single port call in the entire IOR. However, by 2010, the Chinese Navy increased its port calls to 25, and in the past 10 years has conducted 20 port calls per year on an average.
A major reason for the increased port calls has been China’s need to defend it sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), according to a Wilson Centre report.
Many Chinese experts justify their country’s increased presence in the IOR on the grounds that as a sovereign country China has also the right to safeguard its overseas interests, just like other countries.
The PLA Navy’s decision to establish a military base at Djibouti in 2017 and the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden were also seen as Chinese attempts to assert maritime dominance in the open ocean.