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It’s Time to Focus on Southern Africa: Mozambique Will Matter in a War Over Taiwan

It’s Time to Focus on Southern Africa: Mozambique Will Matter in a War Over Taiwan

Mozambique, bordering the Republic of South Africa and a key littoral state east of the Cape, is suffering from domestic instability that is amenable to U.S. foreign assistance.

More than 2,000 ships have been diverted by the Yemeni Houthi disruption to shipping at the Bab el-Manded Strait into the Red Sea. In particular, oil and LNG shipments have been re-routed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, a potentially expensive maritime corridor that was last resorted to after the closure of the Suez Canal by the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In the event of a larger conflict with China over Taiwan, the proximity of the Suez Canal to Beijing’s allies such as Iran and Syria, may see the Cape of Good Hope once again become a vital chokepoint to and from the Indian Ocean, as well as the Persian Gulf. Given the recent pressures for expulsion of U.S. and French military forces from Chad, Niger and Mali, triggered in part by local politics and exploited by foreign powers such as Russia and China, Western maritime states should take a special interest in developments in the region north of the Cape of Good Hope.

Mozambique, bordering the Republic of South Africa and a key littoral state east of the Cape, is suffering from domestic instability that is amenable to U.S. foreign assistance. One third of the world’s maritime shipping crosses the Mozambique Channel, and Mozambique’s Port of Nacala, the deepest harbor in East Africa, facilitate exports, primarily coal, from a number of states in Africa’s interior. Economically the nation holds one of the largest LNG reserves discovered to date, which could become an alternative source of gas for the EU in light of the Russo-Ukraine War. Mozambique is under the threat of Takfiri Islamist civil violence, and Russian influence. However, unlike recent reversals in Africa, Mozambique is amenable to increased Western intervention.

In 2011, an offshore natural gas field containing up to 425 billion cubic meters of gas was discovered by Italian energy giant Eni just 40km off the coast of Cabo Delgado. This initial discovery was soon revealed to be part of a larger 2.4 trillion cubic meter gas field along the eastern coast of Mozambique and propelled the Cabo Delgado province to the forefront of the global oil and gas industry. The discovery of LNG deposits attracted the attention of the world’s largest energy companies, such as Total, which invested US$ 20 billion into an offshore project that aims to produce 13.1 million tonnes of gas per year.

A surge of violent attacks by Islamic State-Mozambique (ISIS-M) in February and March 2024 led to the displacement of over 100,000 people. ISIS-M, known locally as Al-Shabaab, is a violent insurgent group that has its roots in the 1990 Ansar al-Sunna Islamic movement that seeks to overthrow the Mozambican government. The movement recruits predominantly from the Muslim population of Cabo Delgado, who constitutes 52.5 percent of the province, by preying on long-standing poverty and social issues. This insurgency began in 2017 but grew most rapidly in 2021. By 2022, the insurgents were estimated to include approximately 1,200 fighters, and was promoted to the status of Wilayat within the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in May of that year. Although the insurgency was thought to have been suppressed in early 2023, it reasserted itself in late 2023 and 2024, and is likely to produce recurring opportunities for intervention by outside powers hostile to Western interests.

The early eruption of Takfiri terrorism, in conjunction with a need to secure gas export development in 2017, set the circumstances for Mozambique to contract Russia’s Wagner Group to fight the insurgency. A treaty with Moscow in 2018 reciprocated by permitting the docking of Russian military ships at Mozambique ports. At the 2019 Russian-African Summit, President Vladimir Putin stated that “In this connection, we consider it important to expand joint efforts for combating terrorism and extremism. We are planning to invigorate contacts between law enforcement agencies and security services of the Russian Federation and African countries, to coordinate efforts and exchange relevant information.” As a study conducted for the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group concluded: “Russian PMCs are used as a force multiplier to achieve objectives for both government and Russia-aligned private interests while minimizing both political and military costs.” Wagner’s arrival in Mozambique was quickly followed with economic concessions to Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom regarding preferential LNG extraction and expansion of gas pipelines in Southern Africa. Fortunately, continued failure in addressing the counter-insurgency by Wagner and DAG led both groups to pull out in April 2020.

Replacing these two groups, Rwandan troops have seen certain levels of success in fighting back the insurgency. In 2021, joint Mozambican-Rwandan forces recaptured 90 percent of jihadist occupied territories in Cabo Delgado in just 30 days, demonstrating that corruption in governance is the primary obstacle in defeating the insurgents. Despite the persistence of the insurgency, external support is waning for Mozambique with the six-nation SADC military mission (SAMIM), led by South Africa. High costs and chronic international under-funding has resulted in the termination of the operation its departure from Mozambique by June of 2024. Despite the resurgence of ISIS-M attacks, SAMIM disingenuously concluded that it had achieved its goal of reducing insurgent capacity and chose not to renew its mandate. Overall, the mission forces were severely under-equipped (few functioning helicopters) and operationally very weak, which led to the unhindered spread of insurgents west towards Lake Malawi and southwards. Although South Africa continues to provide maritime security to Mozambique through Operation Copper, SAMIM’s withdrawal from Mozambique echoes Russian PMC Wagner Group’s exit in November 2020, yet at this time the insurgent presence and attacks continue to rebound. The only remaining foreign force capable of combating the insurgents, though not sufficiently large, are the EU backed Rwandans.

Thus far, China’s diplomatic relations with Mozambique are cordial and primarily related to timber exports. However, the potential for strategic relations between Maputo and Beijing increases if the West fails to engage Mozambique and address its infrastructural and extractive under-investment, and its insurgency. China is especially well-equipped to offer significant investment in ports, road, rail and fibre-optic construction and to integrate Mozambique into the broader East Coast African infrastructure network along Africa’s East Coast. Chinese naval access to a base in Mozambique, which was a major concern during the Cold War with occasional access provided the Soviets there and in Angola, would have costly consequences if China were to use the bases for interdiction in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. With its economic, energy and most importantly geo-strategic value, Mozambique offers obvious incentives for renewed Russian and Chinese involvement. Both the EU and U.S. have a clear strategic interest in investing the effort to ensure Mozambique’s continued stability.

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