What future for EU-China security cooperation in Africa?


Picture of Niall Duggan
Niall Duggan

The EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of 2003 included a call for greater cooperation in peace and security between the two partners. Security was also a key pillar of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, a document agreed in 2013 as a blueprint for links between China and the European Union for the next decade.

The 2013 document promised to ‘raise the level of EU-China dialogue and cooperation on defence and security, advancing towards more practical cooperation’1. In terms of policy objectives, the Strategic Agenda sought to increase cooperation in the fields of counterterrorism, counterpiracy, international nuclear security, nonproliferation, arms export control and cybersecurity. The Agenda was further supported by China’s EU policy paper of 2014, which also called for greater security cooperation between both actors.

But despite these policy papers, cooperation between the two parties in the area of security has been limited. This is due to several factors. Practical concerns, such as the EU embargo on arms sales to China, tension between the United States and NATO members wishing to increase cooperation with China, and the lack of transparency in the Chinese arms trade all play a role.

However, differing views on the norms and values of international relations play a much larger role in reducing cooperation. For example, conflicting interpretations of human rights, statehood and sovereignty have resulted in China and the EU viewing issues such as humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect in fundamentally divergent ways. This creates a situation where China’s and the EU’s positions on international security affairs – for example, the conflicts in Syria and the island disputes in the South China Sea – are at odds with each other. Given such barriers to cooperation, it is justifiable to ask whether security cooperation between the two giants is simply rhetoric, or whether a sustainable level of cooperation could realistically develop.

Africa offers the greatest opportunity for security cooperation between China and the EU. Both powers are major trading and investment partners with Africa, and bilateral trade between China and the EU relies on safe shipping lanes around Africa’s coasts, which are threatened by a lack of security in the region. Africa is a major supplier of oil and gas to both the EU and China, so a stable, peaceful Africa is also a major factor in improving energy security for both actors. Africa also plays a key part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

A number of non-economic factors make Africa strategically important to both China and the EU. For the EU, North Africa’s status as a “launch pad” for refugees attempting to travel north makes Africa a particular concern. Both China and the EU have a large number of citizens who now call Africa home, making everyday security in Africa a concern for Europeans and Chinese citizens. But while the EU has traditionally been a strong actor in African security, China has attempted to withdraw from security matters in Africa since the 1980s.

With China’s increased economic interest and the growing presence of Chinese citizens in Africa, things are starting to change, with China adopting a more flexible non-interference policy on the continent. China now has a naval logistical facility in Djibouti, which it has used as a base for rescuing Chinese citizens in conflict zones, most notably in Yemen in 2015. There are rumours that China plans to open a similar facility in Namibia. China has increased its contributions to United Nations peacekeeping in Africa; it has sent combat troops to Mali and South Sudan; and it has sent naval vehicles to the Gulf of Aden as part of international anti-piracy missions.

China’s increased activity in Africa’s security architecture has led to some cooperation with the EU. Dutch and Chinese troops have worked together as part of the UN-led Peacekeeping Operation in Mali (MINUSMA). Chinese navy vessels cooperated with EU navy vessels during the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy missions. However, the level of cooperation in both cases was limited. In the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese navy refused to participate in the International Recommended Transit Corridor. Clingendael2 reported that in the case of MINUSMA, Dutch troops questioned the capability of Chinese troops to conduct such a peacekeeping mission, a concern that led to limited interaction.

Beyond direct military cooperation, both China and the EU have moved to strengthen the role and capacity of African regional security bodies to react to a crisis. The Chinese and the Europeans have attempted to strengthen the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the standing organ of the African Union dealing with conflict management and resolution. China and the EU both back the PSC financially and diplomatically, giving it support at high levels of global governance.

China has had a long-term policy of getting behind the views of regional bodies in areas that are affected by conflict – for example, it supported the African Union–backed no-fly zone during the 2011 Libya crisis. The EU has developed a policy of backing regional bodies to strengthen their crisis response capacity through financial, training and logistical support. But despite similar positions towards the role of African regional bodies in conflict management, there is little or no cooperation or coordination between the EU and China in this area, with both parties wanting their efforts to be seen as part of a wider interaction with Africa. The EU wishes to be viewed as a normative power that guides the African Union towards developing the capacity to respond to regional crises. China wishes its support to be seen as part of its long-term policy of “all-weather friendship” with Africa. This friendship presents China as an equal partner to Africa and as a state that will protect the interests of developing nations. This is, of course, a soft-power policy that aims to increase Chinese influence in the developing world, and in particular Africa.

Similarly, both China and the EU focus on meeting Africa’s non-traditional security needs – for example, water and food security – to prevent further conflict on the continent. Both actors provide financial and technical support to African-led projects, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. The EU, its member states and China have all attempted to build up the capacity of African states to respond to climate change, organised crime and water and food insecurity, through government aid bodies, NGO funding, state-owned enterprises or international organisations. But as with the African regional security bodies, cooperation or coordination between the EU and China in non-traditional security is minimal or non-existant.

Europe’s colonial past is also a huge barrier to cooperation. French and British interventions in Africa – be they direct military interventions or not – are often seen both in Africa and China as quasi-imperialistic ventures. This will always reduce the policy space in which the three can cooperate in the area of security. While many see Europe’s diversity as the EU’s weakness, in the case of EU-China security cooperation in Africa, diversity may be the Union’s greatest strength. The People’s Liberation Army has shown interest in having Chinese troops assigned to overseas UN peacekeeping missions trained in Europe. Such training could be done in tandem with training of African peacekeeping troops. This should be led by non-NATO members of the EU, which have good records in peacekeeping. This would prevent the cooperation causing tensions within NATO and would build trust among the three actors, allowing them to become more effective in peacekeeping in Africa.

The EU must also accept diversity within global security governance. China has moved towards a flexible policy of interference, whereby China will intervene in the internal affairs of a state when such interventions are approved by the UN and threaten the territorial integrity of a state. This can be seen in the case of Mali. If the EU wishes to cooperate with China in African security, it should target conflicts that align with this new policy. The EU should also consider allowing member states that do not have a history of colonial rule in Africa to take the lead in cooperating with China – helping to avoid the mission being branded as a quasi-imperialistic venture. It is clear that despite the fact that China and the EU hold similar positions on non-traditional security and strengthening African regional security bodies, cooperation will be limited due to particular political goals. But if both partners agree to allowing these bodies to coordinate the support China and the EU give to them, there may be the possibility to create entities with a greater capacity to deal with security issues in Africa.

1 EU-China (2013) ‘EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation’, 23 November, p .4.

2 Frans Paul van der Putten (2015) China’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping and African Security The Deployment of Chinese Troops for UN Force Protection in Mali Clingendael Report p. 11.

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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