2021 is a significant year for Africa-China relations. It marks 20 years since the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established. China’s Communist Party, which has been in contact with African parties longer than any other political party in the industrialized world, turned 100. Meanwhile, South Africa’s African National Congress, one of the first African movements to be mentored by China, turned 109. The shared liberation movement contacts between China and Africa have been heavily invoked by both sides as the continent braces for the eighth FOCAC Summit, which will take place Senegal in September.
There will be a lot to discuss. FOCAC has evolved into more than a high-level summit. It has established numerous joint mechanisms for capacity building, technical support, and coordination, from local government and agriculture to law enforcement, security, and defense. China is not only Africa’s single largest trade partner and bilateral creditor; it also runs more exchanges for African politicians, civil servants, and professionals than any other country.
This also extends to military ties, which have grown overtime alongside China’s other engagements. China’s military strategy in Africa centers on cultivating personal and professional ties, diffusing norms and models, and forging ideological and political bonds of solidarity.
In fact, military exercises, port visits, and military training appear to play a minimal role. Moreover, the PLA does not deploy troops alongside African forces in the field. Numbers tell a part of the story. Professional and political exchanges constituted 90 percent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engagements in Africa between 2000 and 2016. This broke down to 13 joint military drills, 22 naval port calls, and 259 exchanges and dialogues, suggesting a much stronger emphasis on relationship-building and networking. Over 80 percent of these interactions were conducted with the militaries of the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSA) with whom China has particularly strong historical bonds.
This legacy of engagement dates back to 1950, a year after the People’s Republic of China was founded, when the PLA embarked on supporting Africa’s wars of independence. By 1955, when the Bandung Conference on Afro-Asian Solidarity was held, China was hosting African fighters at Nanjing Military Academy, the Fourth Department of Beijing’s Higher Military Institute (now the PLA’s National Defense University), and other schools. By 1958, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had trained over 3,000 fighters, received over 400 African delegations seeking weaponry, and stationed hundreds of military instructors in Africa. Between 1958 and 1961, China participated in the All-Africa Peoples Congresses in Accra, Tunis, and Cairo, the precursors of the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now African Union, or AU) which was tasked with decolonization. When it established its Liberation Committee in 1963 in Tanzania to coordinate the armed struggle, China became its main provider of arms, military trainers, and advisors. This continued until the fall of apartheid in 1994.
Continuity and Change
The PLA maintained a small presence in Africa compared to other eastern bloc countries like the Soviet Union and Cuba. Cuba’s African deployments numbered 370,000 by 1986. By contrast, Chinese troops did not exceed 20,000 and were not deployed for combat roles. Instead, the PLA was used to reinforce ideological, economic, and “soft power” initiatives. One example is the 1,860 km Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) railway from Zambia’s interior to Tanzania’s Dar Es Salaam port, China's largest and most important project in Africa at the time. This was part of the Organization of African Unity (the African Union’s precursor, 1963-2002)’s strategy to reduce the dependence of the Frontline States (FLS) on the economic and transport infrastructure of apartheid South Africa and other minority white regimes in the region. The FLS provided rear bases for all the region’s liberation movements.
The PLA supported TAZARA by providing technical support, training, and manpower. Its Railway Engineering Corps sent 50,000 workers to join 60,000 recruits from the youth league of Zambia’s ruling party and the Tanzania military’s National Youth Service to build the line.
Such politico-economic and politico-military ventures generated more political influence for China than if it relied solely on military power. This was underlined by former Tanzanian Prime Minister and OAU Secretary General, Salim Ahmed Salim, who said that TAZARA symbolized China’s clear commitment to Africa’s armed struggles and was the primary reason the OAU tipped the scales in Beijing’s favor at the crucial vote that restored its seat at the UN in 1971.
A similar logic prevailed in the era of the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The PLA’s troop numbers in Africa are much smaller than those of other powers such as France and the United States and sequenced closely with ideological, cultural, political, and economic efforts. However, calls for a larger military presence are growing in Beijing. Since 1995, all Chinese defense white papers have called for a “globalized security posture” consistent with China’s resurgence as a Great Power [世界强国].
Africa features in this debate for several reasons. First, it provides China a template for flexible and dual use basing arrangements based on lessons learned from the PLA’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Second, it is the largest bloc within China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with 44 countries joining by 2021. This Belt is part of an ambitious plan to build alternative global economic, political, and security arrangements, also known as the Community of Common Destiny, a vision the AU explicitly endorses.
Third, China’s growing presence in Africa is receiving greater attention in China’s national security establishment. In its latest global risk assessment, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 84 percent of China’s Belt and Road investments lie in medium-to-high risk countries. Indeed, over 10,000 Chinese firms operate in Africa, generating over $40 billion annually in construction alone. Since FOCAC was established in 2000, one million Chinese have made Africa their permanent home, with an additional 200,000 travelling there for work annually. Top executives of many of these companies, as well as serving and retired PLA personnel, continue to advocate for a heavier military footprint given these expanding interests. However, China’s leaders do not seem keen to abandon the basic approach they havegrown accustomed to since the mid-1950s, that is, a light presence couched within an overall “cultural soft power” [文化软实力] approach.
The apparent reluctance to give the PLA a more muscular role partly has to do with the narratives China has cultivated to portray itself as a country that “keeps a low profile” despite its growing influence. Moreover, China is at pains to persuade its African partners that it will not become an “imperialist and hegemonic power”, a loaded term it uses to characterize its Western competitors and their heavy overseas military presence.
China also faces logistical constraints that explain its continued preference for a “light” military footprint. Numerous authoritative analyses from the Academy of Military Science — China’s apex military research institute — note that China’s overseas expeditionary capabilities are “weak,” “insufficient,” and “ill-suited,” to the task of protecting overseas interests. Accordingly, China will likely maintain its basic military approach in the near future while making necessary adjustments.
Unpacking China’s military strategy in the FOCAC Context
China conducts its military and security strategy at the multilateral, bilateral, and unilateral levels. On the multilateral side, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and counterpiracy are a top priority. They are cost-effective and politically neutral and offer China an indirect means to access fragile countries where its Belt and Road investments are concentrated. Such operations also give China diplomatic cover as they flow from international mandates. Additionally, they help China cultivate a positive image, a major shift for a country that once dismissed multilateral security operations such as peacekeeping and peace enforcement as “tools of Western imperialism.” China has embraced them after realizing they can increase its interoperability, improve its combat capabilities, situational awareness, intelligence, and surveillance, and extend its security presence within an international mandate.
They are also cost-effective for China and entail less risk than unilateral deployments. By deploying more troops to multilateral missions than all the other UN Security Council members combined, Beijing has advanced its global leadership ambitions and positioned itself to influence and shape the UN’s decisions and mission mandates consistent with Chinese objectives. Notably, African partnership and support has been key to all this, given that UN missions are particularly concentrated in Africa and over 80 percent of all deployed peacekeepers are African.
China’s bilateral and unilateral security engagements are coordinated through numerous FOCAC mechanisms. The China Africa Peace and Security Fund (CAPSF) focusses on operationalizing the African Union’s African Standby Force, which could offer China opportunities for collaborative security when fully functional. In the meantime, the PLA has raised its own 8,000-strong Standby Force, which it placed at the UN’s disposal for rapid deployment to crises. The China Africa Peace and Security Forum (CAPSF) and China Africa Security and Law Enforcement Forum (CASLF) reinforce partner capacity to defend shared interests, including Chinese-built critical infrastructure, assets, and personnel. Around 50 programs focused on this, from training and law enforcement to intelligence. African countries signed loans worth $3.56 billion for such purposes between 2003 and 2017.
Functional exchanges are a major bilateral tool alongside political exchanges. They are hosted by military academies and schools to diffuse norms, increase interoperability, and develop future leaders. The PLA’s Country-specific programs aim to deepen trust and transfer technical skills, such as the five-month Ethiopia Senior Leaders Course at the PLA’s National Defense University. The China Africa Defense and Security Forum (CADSF) also provides a venue to expand such opportunities.
As a unilateral measure, China is increasingly engaging security firms as part of its search for comprehensive security. A growing number of its 4,000 registered security firms operate in Africa, protecting ports and oil and gas pipelines, working discreetly with local forces, and providing armed maritime escort operations. Chinese companies spend about $10 billion annually on security, which is set to grow given the increasing number of security incidents involving Chinese interests. However, Chinese security firms face the same problem as their Western counterparts: they are expanding without a strong regulatory framework. This, among other things, raises fundamental questions over responsibility for security in Africa.
It remains to be seen whether military exercises, training, and combat support will increase in light of Xi Jinping’s 2019 directive to refocus China’s defense engagements to strengthen and modernize the PLA. However, China’s record of past behavior suggests it will continue to employ a “blended” approach to security whilst refining and sharpening its approach to cultivating inter-personal ties and networks. Much of this has to do with how China has traditionally viewed Africa: not merely as a region of perpetual crisis and chaos, but as a place with immense opportunities despite the risks. China’s military deployments tend to reflect this thinking and have thus shied away from adopting a muscular posture.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U. S. Government.