Challenges and opportunities for peace and security cooperation


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chloë Gotterson
Chloë Gotterson

Picture of Bernardo Mariani
Bernardo Mariani

China and the European Union have both committed to promoting peace and security in Africa. They both support the African Union’s Agenda 2063 goal to eliminate violent conflict by 2020.

The Chinese government prioritises the maintenance of peace and security as a key development ambition in Africa, alongside the acceleration of industrialisation and improvements in public health. Beijing recognises the need to support UN and AU missions, to help African countries build their own peacekeeping capacity and to assist African-led efforts to address non-traditional security threats such as piracy and terrorism. It promotes sustainable development to address the root causes of conflict and is increasing dialogue with African judicial and police departments.

Peace and security is also a priority in the EU’s Africa policy, alongside others such as democracy, good governance and human rights; sustainable and inclusive development. The EU’s African Peace Facility is designed to support African-led peacekeeping operations, build African conflict-prevention and conflict-management capacity, and assist AU-mandated forces working to counter ‘terrorist’ groups such as Boko Haram. It has also recognised that building African peace and security capacities ‘can be better achieved if the EU and China combine their efforts’1.

This shared ambition for security cooperation is echoed in the official China-EU dialogue on African peace, stability and sustainable development, which was initiated by the EU in 2006 with the aim of integrating China into international efforts to improve and coordinate development. The dialogue has been complemented since 2013 by the EU-China Strategic Agenda for Cooperation in which peace and security cooperation form one of the four main pillars.

China and the EU have agreed potential areas for collaboration. They include joint efforts to combat organised crime, counter terrorism and prevent the diversion of small arms2. The EU has also proposed collaboration in peacekeeping. However, despite the numerous joint statements, cooperation at a practical level has been limited and primarily focused on maritime security.

Chinese vessels have escorted World Food Programme aid shipments to Somalia as part of the EU’s Operation Atalanta since 2011. Information sharing and coordination between China and the EU has taken place within the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) counter-piracy initiative. Joint missions have evacuated Chinese and EU citizens from violence in Libya. These were some of the first instances of Chinese security forces deploying in international security missions outside China’s sovereign territory. They demonstrate Beijing’s increasingly proactive foreign policy.

As China expands its engagement in Africa and continues to adopt a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, such practical cooperation is likely to increase. Given the failures of the international community to prevent conflict in Africa, new partnerships and fresh approaches are needed to tackle the drivers of conflict.

Despite growing economic relations between China and the EU, progress on security cooperation in Africa has been relatively insignificant. This is due in part to the two sides’ different approaches to building peace and security.

There are differences over values and interpretations of sovereignty; over the responsibility to protect and humanitarian intervention; and on the use of foreign policy tools. The Chinese government is often slow to get involved in overseas crisis mediation because of sovereignty concerns, while the EU prioritises early mediation to avoid more expensive post-conflict responses.

The lack of clear and comprehensive policies on African security also inhibits the development of mutual understanding and trust that are essential to building an effective partnership. The Chinese government does not have a public policy outlining its approach to peace support in Africa. It lacks the transparency needed to make its intentions and capabilities understood by EU leaders3. At the EU level, the continued prerogative of member states over security and defence remains a challenge to consistency.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU will impact on efforts to build China-EU cooperation on peace and security in Africa. The UK has helped shape EU foreign and security policy. Its financial, military and diplomatic assets, including the permanent UN Security Council seat, have been important sources of influence for the EU. The climate of uncertainty clouding the future of UK-EU relations suggests the EU, at least in the short term, is likely to lose security and foreign policy clout, including in dealings with China. This is heightened by the recent UK drive to become China’s ‘best partner in the West’4, which has ushered in a ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations and a new Sino-British development partnership.

As Beijing expands its engagement overseas and seeks to play a more active role in support for international peace and stability, there will be significant windows of opportunity for China and the EU to convert rhetoric on African security cooperation into concrete action. The growing need to protect its citizens, businesses and interests overseas has led the Chinese government to adopt a more pragmatic and politically nuanced approach to foreign crises. This has challenged traditional non-intervention policies, allowing Chinese engagement in mediation efforts in countries such as South Sudan.

China and the EU have identified priority areas for collaboration to promote peace and security. Combatting organised crime is one increasingly seen as critical given criminal networks’ contribution to instability and violence across Africa. Nevertheless, such cooperation should be carefully considered. In many cases, counter-narcotic efforts have been responsible for pushing people into poverty, harming governance and worsening conflict. Collaboration on such issues is only likely to reap significant rewards or become a successful launch-pad for wider cooperation if it adequately addresses the local development challenges behind organised crime.

Given that China and the EU already have some experience of joint counter-piracy operations, this could be a natural stepping-stone towards joint efforts to disrupt organised crime networks. Joint counter-piracy initiatives are likely to increase following the opening of China’s planned naval base in Djibouti. Maritime security cooperation could also expand to other African regions – notably the Gulf of Guinea. Beijing has called for greater international support to help countries around the Gulf of Guinea build anti-piracy capacity and the EU’s 2014 Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea urges coordination with China.

However, international efforts to counter piracy have neglected its root causes. To successfully prevent piracy and promote regional peace, an approach which addresses human security issues in communities where piracy is incubated is essential alongside the maritime efforts.

Another stated priority for China-EU cooperation in Africa is combatting terrorism. The EU has suggested a focus on the root causes, stemming sources of terrorist finance and preventing radicalisation5. New ways of thinking about counter-terrorism and new partnerships should be welcomed. So should the commitment to addressing terrorism’s root causes, but there must be a more holistic approach to peace building. Saferworld’s research6 has shown that a narrow focus on terrorism can lead to the neglect of other factors contributing to insecurity. China and the EU should use this opportunity to ensure that the security of people in unstable African nations is prioritised over national or international security goals.

The UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism outlines some of the potential causes of terrorism including lack of socioeconomic opportunities, marginalisation and discrimination, poor governance, violations of human rights and the rule of law, prolonged and unresolved conflicts.

The international community has committed to address these issues through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The promotion of ‘peaceful, just and inclusive societies’ was identified as one of five priorities in the 2030 Agenda, which world leaders – including those from every European state and China – signed up to in September 2015. Those goals were highlighted as a priority during the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in July 2016. Ensuring that this is done through African-led and African-owned initiatives which reflect the views of African people as well as their governments presents an excellent opportunity for China and the EU to work together to promote peace and address other priorities such as terrorism, organised crime and arms control.

China and the EU have long recognised the value of working together to deliver more effective arms control7, but this has produced few practical results. Improving international capacity to prevent the diversion of arms to unintended recipients should be a priority. It is particularly relevant for China in a case like South Sudan’s civil war. Beijing is actively involved in conflict mediation and peacekeeping operations there, yet both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and its foes in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition are armed with Chinese weapons.

The EU has identified Mali and Somalia as target countries for increased EU-China collaboration on peacekeeping8. In both countries, there is already basic-level cooperation between the Chinese peacekeeping contingent and its counterparts from EU member states. One area where this could be further developed is joint training for personnel and local forces. The People’s Liberation Army has already voiced an interest in sending personnel to Europe for training ahead of peacekeeping missions9.

However, the growing Chinese and EU engagement in African peacekeeping presents a significant opportunity for shared values to be championed in support of UN reforms to establish a more people-centred approach. Such reforms should favour the use of civilian expertise in peace support operations to better anticipate crises and protect local populations, rather than military responses.

Some friction is likely to endure in China-EU relations, but existing obstacles are not insurmountable and there are strong incentives for increased cooperation on peace and security in Africa.

In order to maximise opportunities, the EU needs to ensure a coordinated, joined-up effort from all member states and the Chinese government should devise a comprehensive policy on how it intends to support African peace and security. This will facilitate a speedier and more efficient Chinese response to escalating crises while helping those in the EU policy community to better understand the Chinese approach and identify further opportunities for cooperation.

It is also advisable that China and the EU:


    • initiate a new Africa-China-EU dialogue to support the implementation of Agenda 2030, with particular emphasis on Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies;


    • introduce trilateral mechanisms for information exchange and coordination on issues related to organised crime and terrorism, whilst ensuring a holistic approach to prioritise people’s security needs over national and international security objectives;


    • consider alternative approaches to maritime security cooperation – including the adoption of additional strategies that tackle the underlying drivers of piracy;


    • share experiences, lessons and policies to tackle small arms and light weapons proliferation and misuse, and encourage joined-up international action to prevent the diversion of arms to unintended or proscribed users;


    • encourage the AU and UN to undertake more effective peace support operations, including by jointly supporting the design and implementation of a new wave of peacekeeping in Africa which places the needs of local populations at the fore.


    There are robust opportunities for the EU and China to expand their security relations and further cooperate in support of peace in Africa. How and to what extent China and the EU will be able to seize such opportunities remains to be seen. It is however plausible that through incremental approaches they will adopt more concrete measures that deliver tangible and sustainable improvements for conflict-affected populations in Africa.

    1 European External Action Service (2016) ‘EU-China relations’ Brussels, 22 June 2016. Available from:

    2 See for example China’s 2014 policy paper on the EU ‘Deepening the China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for mutual benefit and win-win cooperation’ and the EC’s 2016 joint communication ‘Elements for a new EU strategy on China

    3 Maher, R (2016) ‘The elusive EU-China strategic partnership’ International Affairs vol.92, No,.4, July 2016, Wiley Blackwell, p. 966

    4 This is a phrase used by several members of the UK Cabinet around the time of President Xi’s October 2015 State Visit, including Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

    5 European Commission (2016) ‘Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Elements for a new EU strategy on China’.

    6 Keen, D and Attree, L (2015) ‘Dilemmas of counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding’, Saferworld, January 2015.

    7 See, for example the ‘Joint declaration of the People’s Republic of China and the European Union on Non-proliferation and Arms Control’, Brussels, 8 December 2004.

    8 European Commission (2016) ‘Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: Elements for a new EU strategy on China’, p13.

    9 See van der Putten, F (2015) ‘China’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping and African Security: The Deployment of Chinese Troops for UN Force Protection in Mali’, Clingendael, September 2015.

    This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ’ published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa. These articles provide insight into stakeholders’ views and recommendations as China evolves from an economic to a security player in Africa.

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