China’s contemporary relationship with Africa was put on bold display in Beijing at FOCAC VII, with the spotlight cast on China’s willingness to provide financing for development to the tune of $60 billion and, sotto voce, a critical narrative on the dangers of rising African indebtedness. What was lost in this development-tinged debate was recognition of the changing dynamics of China’s role in another important arena, African security, and its broader implications for the continent.
Chinese security relations with Africa have in fact evolved considerably over the last two decades, from cautious multilateral expansion to an approach which ties this engagement to Beijing’s heightened concerns for its economic interests and citizens. Whereas China’s official policy of non-interference in domestic affairs guided its stance on security questions during this initial phase, mounting international pressure on Beijing to respond to the crisis in Darfur – where its oil investments and infrastructure projects effectively underwrote support for the Sudanese regime – caused China to change its policy by 2004. Diplomatic activism at the UN Security Council aimed at demonstrating that China was a responsible great power focused on mediating the conflict, coupled to financial support for the hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur (UNAMID), marking the beginning of a more concerted shift in policy towards selective intervention under the auspices of the UN. During the same period, China’s involvement in multilateral peacekeeping grew from non-combatant roles to combat-ready forces deployed in UN missions to South Sudan and Mali, bringing the total number of Chinese peacekeepers to over 2700 today. China, moreover, has set aside $1 billion for UN peace operations and reiterated its commitment to provisions for Africa’s Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) including the AU standby force and early warning mechanisms.
Starting in 2008, the Chinese navy’s participation in multilateral maritime operations against pirates off the Horn of Africa coincided with a search for a long-term basing arrangement in the region. On the other side of the continent, with the uptake in attacks on merchant vessels and drilling platforms in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea since 2012, the Chinese navy has engaged regularly in bilateral cooperation, training activities and anti-piracy drills with West African counterparts. At the same time, deepening economic involvement in Africa by tens thousands of Chinese firms exposed them to a range of risks, including resource nationalism and threats against citizens, a situation that came to a head with the uprising in North Africa in 2011. Unable to evacuate its citizens without foreign assistance, the Chinese government had to rely on the Greek navy to safely remove over 35,680 Chinese nationals from the destructive civil war and NATO bombing campaign.
Setting up China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in late 2015, the logical extension to enhancing its military projection capacity and staffed initially by a 4000 strong rapid reaction force, nonetheless marked only the first step in furthering its role in African security. As the FOCAC VII Action Plan outlines, there are explicit commitments to expand joint cooperation through 50 security assistance programmes targeting UN peacekeeping, piracy, terrorism and crime. Chinese support for UN peacekeeping operations will continue to grow, underwritten by $100 million toward capacity building in AU Standby Force and African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis, as well as through funding of the China-UN Peace and Development Fund and training programmes.
Expanding ties at sub-regional levels, including the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Guinea, areas abutting Lake Chad and the Sahel are given specific mention in in the Action Plan as focal points of security cooperation. But ambitions for security cooperation go beyond the northern half of the continent. For instance, plans are already in motion to provide financial resources to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to build a regional logistics depot in Botswana to support the SADC standby force. The launching of a $10 billion project to build port facilities in Bagamoyo (Tanzania), reckoned by analysts when completed to be the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and potentially dual-usage, is matched by Beijing’s search on the Atlantic coast for another basing facility.
Strengthening bilateral defence and policing relationships is another ongoing component of Chinese-African cooperation in the security sector. In this respect, FOCAC VII announced the creation of the China-Africa Law Enforcement and Security Forum to improve African governments’ capacity to and, in so doing, ‘protect the safety of Chinese nationals, Chinese companies and major projects’. Working within the framework of INTERPOL, Chinese and African security officials plan to deepen their cooperation through exchanges and share intelligence with an aim to combat corruption, terrorism and cross-border crime such as the illegal wildlife trade. Closer existing ties between the Chinese military and counterparts in countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania are likely to benefit further from institutionalised cooperation as envisaged at the first China-Africa Defence and Security Forum held in July this year in Beijing in advance of FOCAC VII.
As much as the high profile engagement in multilateral security captures the headlines, the significance of commercial arms sales comes into play. Once a side actor on a continent dominated by Western and Russian armament firms, Chinese small arms and military equipment are occupying a growing slice of the trade: SIPRI estimates that a quarter of all small arms in Africa are sourced from China. Finally, the emergence of Chinese sponsored security firms operating in Africa is catching the attention of the Western and African press. Emblematic of the changing dynamics in this sector is the involvement of the partially Chinese-owned (CITIC) Frontier Services Group, a security company led by former Blackwater head Erik Prince, which reportedly won multi-million dollars contracts in Mozambique. Private security companies like DeWe, established and managed by former PLA soldiers, are operating in South Sudan and elsewhere around the continent.
This widening footprint in the continent’s security highlights how the China-Africa relationship is not only oriented towards achieving ambitious development goals but increasingly aligns these with peace and security commitments. In this respect, the emergence of China as a truly global power, with multilateral, bilateral and commercial interests in peace and security, is quietly being realised in Africa.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)