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China-Comoros ties: ‘A pragmatic cooperation of 36 years’ December 18, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge, Future Directions International, India , trackback

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

Key Points

Evolution of the Relationship

After the former-French colony declared independence in 1975, China was the first country to recognise the new nation and establish diplomatic relations. In the years that followed official two-way visits by senior Chinese and Comorian officials became a notable feature of the expanding ties. Bilateral institutions have since been formed to facilitate greater co-operation and exchanges, such as the Comoros-China Friendship Association and the Sino-Comoros Friendship Association. China began to dispatch medical teams to the Comoros in 1994, as part of its diplomatic strategy.

Strategically, there have been suggestions that, initially, China cultivated relations with the Comoros to counterbalance Soviet, Western, and now, growing Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region. The investments by China have secured the continued support of the Comoros for the one-China policy and also encouraged the Comoros to extend its support to China in 2001, when tensions escalated after a US surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s goodwill gestures by China were made in the form of small aid projects. In 1985, the two countries signed a cultural agreement. By 2002, bilateral trade amounted to US$760,000, almost entirely exports from China, and has since grown steadily. China is now the second-largest source of imports for the Comoros, after France. Bilateral ties reached a historic milestone in 2003, when Comorian President, Azali Assoumani, met with Chinese President, Hu Jintao, in Beijing and signed two bilateral agreements on economic and technical cooperation. In the following year, and for the first time ever, a Chinese foreign minister visited the Comoros.

Since then, Chinese inroads in the Comoros have continued to expand. In late 2005, Chinese Minister of National Defense, Cao Gangchuan, visited the Comoros and met with Soilihi Mohamed, Chief-of-Staff of the 600-strong Comorian National Development Army, to discuss defence co-operation.

The Comoros celebrated the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in December 2010, with an official function and a series of artistic events. As an act of goodwill, China agreed to fund the construction of three new Comorian primary schools. Similarly, the year 2011 has been a significant one in the development of China-Comoros relations. For instance, China granted the Comoros US $6.5 million to build a new 100-bed hospital on the island of Anjouan.

In January 2011, China and the Comoros signed an ‘Agreement on Economic and Technology Cooperation’ in the fields of medicine and education. The two countries also agreed to explore potential for cooperation in agriculture, energy, tourism and fisheries. China’s willingness to maintain amicable relations with the Comoros was again demonstrated in May 2011, when the newly elected Comorian President, Ikililou Dhoinine Madi, met with Chinese special envoy, Hao Ping, who arrived to attend the president’s inauguration ceremony.

While China has made clear inroads and retains substantial influence in the Comoros, it is by no means the only contender. There are other regional and extra-regional nations also vying for influence on the archipelago-nation, for example France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, US and more recently, India.

Geopolitical Rivalry

France is reportedly the most significant international partner of the Comoros. In fact, French expeditionary forces have previously intervened in Comorian internal affairs, which have often been beset by serious political instability and coups. Similarly, among other Western strategic partners Japan is reportedly the second-largest provider of aid to the Comoros and has invested in areas such as fisheries, agriculture and the construction of roads.

With over 95 per cent of the population who adhere to Islam, the Comoros has developed strong relations with the Islamic-nations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia an. In recent years, especially during the term of President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi (c.2006-2011), Comorian ties with Iran were also upgraded.  The leader of the Chuma Party, an opposition political entity led by Said Kemal, claimed that Iran was training the Comorian Army. In 2007, the Africa Research Bulletin reported that a youth training centre at the Comorian capital, Moroni, was renamed the Khomeini Foundation, allegedly in commemoration of the Iranian cleric. Similarly, there were claims the Comoros and Iran had also signed an agreement giving Iranian trawlers authorisation to fish in Comorian territorial waters.

Although Chinese aid and assistance to the Comoros is modest, it nonetheless demonstrates that China is adamant about maintaining friendly relations and plans to upgrade the level of bilateral co-operation, as part of its broader foreign policy to expand its influence in Africa and the Indian Ocean Region. As illustrated by the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, a US perspective on China-Comoros relations suggests: ‘China established relations with the Comoros Islands in 1975 and, unlike the US, maintains a resident embassy there. The Comoros supports China’s anti-secession law and its one China policy. China pays a small price for strong support in international forums.’

Whether China has any ambitions other than aid and investment is open to speculation. Securing tenements for oil and gas exploration may become a tangible Chinese objective in the near term, given that US resource company, GXT Technology Corporation, several months ago acquired the rights for exploration work in the Comoros, after initial prospecting indicated the possible existence of gas or oil reserves. The company’s presence, perhaps the only major US presence on the island, is indicative of the relatively low priority the Comoros has received from US policymakers. Although the US recognised the Comoros in 1977, and has maintained cordial relations, it closed its embassy in 1993 and now co-ordinates its diplomatic affairs with the Comoros through its embassy in Madagascar.

Even though the Comoros is strategically located at the entrance to the Mozambique Channel, there have been no reports suggesting that China entertains ambitions to establish military base facilities of any kind. This would be even less likely, given the ongoing defence treaty with France, which trains Comorian military personnel and conducts aerial and maritime patrols to secure Comorian territorial waters, from base facilities located on the nearby islands of Mayotte and Reunion. Presently, China appears more intent on developing Mauritius as a regional headquarters for its economic interests among Indian Ocean islands; this is likely to preclude the Comoros from attaining a similar status for Chinese commercial interests that operate throughout the region.

Although a latecomer to the scene, India has maintained a growing interest in the Comoros and has watched the rise of China’s influence with unease. India has maintained diplomatic relations with the Comoros since 1976, but made little progress in developing relations until around 2004, when the Indian Minister of External Relations and Co-operation, Souef Mohamed El-Amine, visited the Comoros. The occasion marked the first high-level visit by an Indian diplomatic official of significance, which paved the way for the gradual expansion of ties.

Thereafter, in 2006, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the two countries signed a Bilateral Country Agreement to set up the Pan African E-network in the Comoros, an Indian initiative to enhance long-distance educational and training linkages through the use of modern technology. Similarly, India undertook a feasibility study with the intention of setting up a vocational training institute. The Comoros sought Indian assistance with coconut farming, malaria control and low-cost housing. The growing strategic rivalry between China and India has seen both countries tussle for influence among island-nations, such as Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles and now, increasingly, the Comoros, where India appears determined to contest Chinese influence.

The year 2011 appears to be an important turning point in the way India views its relationship with the Comoros. For instance, in May this year, the Comorian Ministry of Energy announced that the Exim Bank of India had agreed to finance an 18 MW electrification project, to the tune of US $41.6 million, at concessional rates. More recently, in early October, India’s Additional Secretary (Africa), Gurjit Singh, visited the Comoros and met with President Ikililou Dhoinine to discuss ways to improve bilateral ties, which led to India offering a US $35 million soft loan for development projects, on top of a previous loan earlier in the year.

The arrival of India on the scene is indicative of its escalating strategic rivalry with China, examples of which can be seen throughout the entire Indian Ocean Region. The New Great Game in the Indian Ocean has finally thrust the Comoros into great power regional strategic calculations, with major consequences for the future of the archipelago-nation.

Comments

1. Medhir.R.Mehta - August 5, 2012

this was really helpful…..excellent…..i totally understoond China’s role in comoros..that is exactly wat i was looking for.