China-Comoros Ties: ‘A Pragmatic Co-operation of 36 Years’

3 November 2011 FDI Team

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Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

FDI Senior Analyst

Key Points

  • Comoros is seeking to attract greater foreign investment to facilitate national development. It sees China as a useful, sympathetic and powerful ally that is willing to provide aid and development assistance.
  • Given that India now operates a listening station in northern Madagascar and has an active and expanding presence in the western Indian Ocean, China may increasingly view the strategic location of the Comoros as important to its regional strategic objectives.
  • China’s growing profile in the Comoros has attracted the attention of other competing powers, particularly India, which is trying to contest and limit China’s influence in the western Indian Ocean.

 

Summary

Located in the southwest quadrant of the Indian Ocean, at the northern entrance of the Mozambique Channel, between Mozambique and the island of Madagascar, is the Union of the Comoros – a small and little known Islamic archipelago-nation. In recent years, particularly over the last decade, China has played an increasingly important role in the island nation’s development, which has led to the strengthening of bilateral ties and the likelihood of enhanced co-operation in the future. The growing presence of China in the Comoros, however, has attracted the attention of other Indian Ocean regional powers, particularly India, which appears determined to enhance its profile and contest China’s dominance.

 

Analysis

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, in the form of small aid projects, have included: the construction of a water-supply project, building and refurbishment of the People's Palace, presidential mansions, several government offices, a television broadcasting building and renovation of the international airport. In 1982, China also provided a small number of scholarships to Comorian students. In 1985, the two countries signed an ‘Agreement for Cultural Cooperation between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Islamic Union of the Comoros’, an accord that facilitated visits to the Comoros by Chinese arts and handicraft shows, acrobatic performances and musical troupes.

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 news agency Xinhuanet reported that the 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 Chinese army attaches great importance to its friendship with the army of the Comoros, and is ready to further develop the friendly cooperative ties between the two armies,’ stated Cao Gangchuan. ‘I believe my visit is sure to further strengthen the friendly co-operation between the two countries and their armed forces,’ he added.

Another outstanding example in the development of bilateral ties was seen in 2007, when a Chinese-funded medical team commenced a five-year anti-malarial campaign on the island of Moheli, where the disease has been a longstanding problem. The intervention was estimated to have cost China US$320,000. In the following year, an official Comorian delegation, accompanied by the Chief-of-Staff of the Comoros military, Salimou Mohamed Amiri, met with the Chinese Defence Minister, Liang Guanglie,and agreed to further expand bilateral defence co-operation.

 

Expanding 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. The magnanimous gesture was heralded by Chinese ambassador, Wang Leyou,as: ‘A new step in our pragmatic co-operation of 36 years’.

In January 2011, the website of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation reported that 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.Three months later, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the status of its activities on the Comoros, declaring: 

Bilateral economic cooperation and trade made steady progress. The rural schools and the repair project of the TV station on the Anjouan Island with Chinese assistance were completed smoothly. And the projects of Comorian National Tourism Office Building and presidential offices on the Anjouan Island and Moheli Island were successfully launched. Bilateral exchanges and cooperation in health, cultural and other fields were unfolding.

The statement further elaborated:

China sent the eighth medical team to Comoros. Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine provided malaria prevention and control services, which produced good medical results and social benefits. In November, the Anhui Art Troupe staged performances in Comoros in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

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

Regardless of the tensions associated with Comorian claims on French-occupied Mayotte and the Glorioso Islands, 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.

Conversely, with over 95% of the population who adhere to Islam, the Comoros has developed strong relations with the Islamic-nations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Iran. The Comoros is an ongoing recipient of Kuwaiti and Saudi aid and, due to this, has been successful in acquiring loans from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and in attaining membership of the League of Arab States.

In recent years, especially during the term of President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi (c.2006-2011), Comorian ties with Iran were 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 ultimately 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.

 

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