Pentagon jittery over China's military ambitions in Kenya

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III with his Kenyan counterpart Aden Duale at the DoD on September 25, 2023. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

U.S. Defence officials have raised concerns over Beijing’s plans to establish a network of military and naval bases in Kenya and across Africa.

In a congressionally mandated report released on October 19, the Pentagon articulated why the American Department of Defence considers the People’s Republic of China its “pacing challenge”.

Washington sounding the alarm about China’s alleged plans to establish a military base in Kenya and extend its influence in the country economically and commercially comes weeks after the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, visited Kenya and held a series of meetings with defence officials and Kenyan president, William Ruto.

The Pentagon chief visited Kenya in late September and signed a five-year defence deal with Nairobi aimed at strengthening counterterrorism efforts in the region and supporting Kenya’s efforts to take the lead in the Haiti mission.

The report claimed that the planned base in Kenya is part of China’s pursuit of a global military logistics network to counter the existing interests of superpower nations, including the US.

“China is seeking to expand its overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party to project and sustain military power at greater distances,” the report stated.

Pentagon officials argued that if this is realised, a global Chinese military logistics network could disrupt U.S. military operations as China’s global military objectives evolve.

The report claimed that the Chinese Strategic Support Force (SSF) is operating tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Kenya, alongside Namibia, Pakistan, and Argentina.

In 2017, China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, where about 2,000 Chinese troops are stationed only a few miles from the U.S navy base, Camp Lemonnier, enhancing its global influence and better protecting its security interests far away from home.

But Beijing maintains that the Djibouti base supports its anti-piracy and humanitarian missions in Africa and West Asia.

By setting up a base in Kenya, where Pentagon runs a similar military camp for operations in Lamu County, Washington warns that Beijing wants to boost its military and economic influence over Kenya.

A former Kenyan foreign policy official told the Standard that “he’d be surprised if China is not shopping for military bases in all strategic places around the world”.

“China is not a banana republic. They act intentionally and with purpose.”

The source argued that, “China like all superpowers is always looking for places to establish bases that would allow them to have greater reach”.

Nairobi has closer defence ties with Washington and London, the former colonial master who maintains a permanent army training camp in Nanyuki, Kenya.

Kenya is a key ally in the battle against terrorism in East Africa for the two western capitals.

Apart from Washington’s interests in Kenya and the continent, the US DoD worries about China’s anti-satellite weapons that are ground-based missiles and high-power lasers, satellites with robotic arms able to grab other satellites, cyber-attack capabilities and other systems that could jam, blind, or disable American satellites.

The annual report has been mandated by Congress since 2000 as a way to help inform Washington’s policy debates about China’s military growth and modernisation.

This year’s version repeats many of the concerns raised in previous reports, even as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to escalate.

The report provides a list of countries in which the Pentagon thinks China has “likely considered” establishing military logistics facilities “to support naval, air and ground forces projection,” in a style similar to the Chinese military’s support base in Djibouti, which sits just a few miles from a U.S. base, Camp Lemonnier.

Those countries include; Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, the report says.

China’s Ministry of Defence has criticised the report from the Pentagon detailing China’s growing military strength and nuclear arsenal in the latest barb between the two superpowers.

“We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this report,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said in a statement, describing the report as exaggerated hype about a “non-existent ‘Chinese military threat’.”

Wu defended China’s growing military strength as necessary for safeguarding its national interest and as a deterrent to future war.

 China has built the world’s largest naval fleet, more than 340 warships, and until recently, it has been regarded as a green-water navy, operating mostly near the country’s shores.

According to a report done by CNN, new analysis from Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD) says Beijing’s growing push for port access includes helping to build a naval base in Cambodia and scouting other potential locations for military outposts as far afield as Africa’s Atlantic coast.