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.
News that Tanzania will revive a $10 billion port project in the town of Bagamoyo has ignited speculation that China, the project’s main investor, is looking to establish an additional dual-use foothold on the East African coast, a move that would greatly enhance Beijing’s strategic aims in the region. The main purpose of Bagamoyo Port would be to ease the congestion at the country’s main port, Dar es Salaam, located 75 km to its south. Bagamoyo could also become a maritime gateway for neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, “the world’s greatest untapped non-oceanic/polar minerals gold mine,” according to Lauren Johnston, a visiting senior lecturer of the School of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Adelaide.
But the port could be tapped for purposes that go beyond purely commercial endeavors. It may also be used as a ship repair hub for China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or perhaps even more. China established its first and only overseas military base in northern Africa’s Djibouti in 2017. President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced on Saturday that Tanzania would restart the port project, which had been halted on concerns that Chinese demands about the usage of the facility were too onerous. Indian Ocean expert Darshana Baruah, an associate fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says East Africa offers China an easier entry point to the Indian Ocean than other locations closer to the Strait of Malacca.
Indian Ocean expert Darshana Baruah, an associate fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that a second naval base in the Indian Ocean, following Djibouti, would help with China’s “Malacca Dilemma” — a phrase former President Hu Jintao used to describe the Asian country’s dependence on the world’s busiest chokepoint. “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 continue their operations in the Indian Ocean region,” Baruah said. While Beijing’s main maritime focus is in the South and East China seas, it has poured time and effort into building relationships in the Indian Ocean. China has diplomatic missions in all six of the island nations in the region, namely Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros. Washington has three — in Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Madagascar — with plans in place for a fourth in the Maldives. “No other Indian Ocean player — India, France, or the United Kingdom — has a presence in all six island nations,” Baruah noted.
But Tanzania’s independent-minded tradition could stand in the way of China’s ambition to use Bagamoyo as a dual-use port. “It’s not their style,” she said. “They are neutral-minded, and they are trusted by Africans for that. Housing a Chinese security port or base would undermine what Tanzania is.” When Tanzania’s Hassan announced that she would revive the Bagamoyo project, she said, “We are going to start talks with the investors that came for the project with the aim of opening it for the benefit of our nation.”
Source: Nikkei Asia