Official Chinese media reacted quickly to the vote. “Cooperation won’t change because of Brexit,1” wrote the overseas edition of the People’s Daily two days after the June 23 referendum. Chinese policy makers and academics do not expect leaving the EU to end Britain’s global ambitions. Instead they see it giving the UK more scope to use its diplomatic and military capabilities to position itself as a world power.
The UK and China are both significant trade and development partners for Africa. Both have veto powers on the United Nations Security Council. They share interests and responsibilities in Africa.
For China, the security demands of protecting its massive investments and large numbers of personnel in Africa are increasing dramatically. The 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit announced peace and security as one of 10 fields of cooperation.
China and the UK have had different approaches to African peacekeeping. The UK has mainly sought to promote peace and security through funding and training programmes. China now contributes by deploying its own personnel to support operations in Africa. In 2015, China sent its first infantry battalion to participate in a peacekeeping operation, in South Sudan.
Yet, in spite of differences in principle and practice, the UK and China have been cooperating in African security affairs for years. On the governmental level, the UK has provided technical and language training to Chinese peacekeepers and police at China’s Langfang training centre. The two countries also worked together in the fight against ebola. On the secondary track, British NGO Saferworld and the Shanghai Institute for International Studies - a key Chinese foreign-policy think tank - created a conflict prevention working group and organised several rounds of research dialogue.
There are several factors behind the UK’s willingness to cooperate with China on African security.
UK security policy has undergone great changes since the 2003 Iraq War and the Libya War in 2011. Policy makers - and the public - have become more cautious over foreign military intervention. The UK’s armed forces are expected to shrink from 102,000 soldiers in 2010 to 82,000 by 2020. A 2015 poll by the Pew Research Centre, found that over half of the British public are reluctant to use force, even to defend a NATO ally2. In 2013, the British Parliament voted against intervention in Syria3. The recent Chilcot report on Iraq has triggered even more debate on the use of military force. Britain’s preference is clearly for conflict prevention rather than military involvement. All this makes China’s developmental approach to addressing security problems appealing to the UK.
Britain also wants to share responsibility with China in the provision of public security in Africa. Through cooperation, London seeks to integrate China into the rules-based international system which is still dominated by the West.
Working directly with China on security issues could be a way to build broader relations with Beijing. During its EU phase, the UK used membership of the Union to pursue its national interest and extend its international influence. In the Brexit era, relations with non-EU countries will become even more central to UK efforts to maintain global power status. Greater engagement in African security could strengthen bilateral ties with China, which faces its own security challenges in Africa.
Since the coming into force in January of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guide development policy over the next 15 years, the UK has been approaching China for security cooperation through the SDG platform, particularly under SDG16 on peace, justice and strong institutions4. This is a new element now affecting China-UK security cooperation in Africa.
Discussions over the development-security relationship have seen some dramatic changes over the past decade. Previously, Britain gave precedence to security over development, while China considered development as its paramount concern. Since the adoption of Agenda 2030 and its universal goals for all countries, both China and the UK agree that development and security now form two - equally important - sides of the same coin.
China feels it can learn from Britain’s holistic approach to security affairs - combining diplomacy, defence and development tools. The UK’s main security strategies - including the National Security Strategy, the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Building Stability Overseas Strategy and the Conflict Pool Strategy - are all jointly issued by the Department of International Development, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. Although different departments still have different interests, this shows the UK’s willingness to integrate development, diplomacy and security. China’s development and security policy making is more fragmented.
The integration of security into the development agenda is aiding the shift from militarised responses to security challenges towards developmental approaches that address the structural problems at the root of insecurity and instability. The UK had a lead role in shaping the 2030 agenda and China has accepted its security targets. However, China and the UK still have different understandings and focuses on security.
As a strong behind-the-scenes advocate of SDG16, the UK is dedicated to “the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels.”
Observed closely, SDG16 contains striking similarities with the three specific areas highlighted in the UK’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy: free, transparent and inclusive political systems; effective and accountable security and justice; the capacity of local populations, regional and multilateral institutions to prevent and resolve conflicts. The UK has used policy leverage to successfully integrate its national vision into the global framework of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda.
China has always been an advocate of interdependence between development and security. While the UK still emphasises governance as crucial to security, China has a different focus. China puts more emphasis on the role of inclusive economic growth - including elements such as infrastructure, health and agriculture - in building sustainable security. As President Xi Jinping told the UN last year, ‘development is the greatest form of security’. China is not against the UK position on good governance, but it has a different understanding of what governance means in the SDG16 context. China is concerned that the SDG16 agenda could become dominated by the North, or would evolve in a way that allows Northern powers to impose their own interests on the South. China also worries that the UK’s over-emphasis on the security aspects of development will cause a shift of priorities that reduces development resources, raising the risk of conflict. One example is the UK decision to devote 30% of official development assistance to fragile and conflict-affected countries5.
However, SDG16 brings prospects for China-UK security cooperation in Africa. China used to outsource security to governments in conflict-affected countries. But Beijing is gradually engaging more with local communities, showing a better understanding of how this helps mitigate security problems. Since the 2030 Agenda requires a global, multi-stakeholder partnership for sustainable development, China-UK security cooperation could be pursued at various levels, among governments, think tanks, business and NGOs.
Compared with the UK, China has limited knowledge of the politics, culture, religion and civil society of conflict-affected countries in Africa. China can learn how to involve civil society players in its African security strategy. In March 2016, with the assistance of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, Saferworld organised a visit of South Sudan civil society representatives to China for a dialogue on security issues. That was a good sign of China’s willingness to break out of its comfort zone of inter-governmental cooperation. It should serve as a first step towards more trilateral cooperation among business and civil society in China, the UK and Africa.
The UK’s desire for a security partnership with China in Africa is stronger than China’s desire for partnership with the UK. For China, Brexit will reduce the added value of Britain’s position as a leading player in the EU. However, compared with other potential security partners in Africa such as the United States and France, the UK is providing a more proactive cooperation option for China. The positions of conflict-affected African countries are crucial to China-UK security cooperation. African security affairs cannot be solved, or even discussed, without the involvement of African countries.
Security cooperation between the UK and China should start from areas of low-sensitivity and focus more on sustainable economic development to address the root cause of conflicts.
1 “China-UK golden era won’t change by Brexit, People’s Daily overseas edition, 25 June, 2016, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2016-06/25/content_1690257.htm
2 “Many NATO Countries Reluctant to Use Force to Defend Allies”, http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/06/10/nato-publics-blame-russia-for-ukrainian-crisis-but-reluctant-to-provide-military-aid/russia-ukraine-report-46/, retrieved on 30 August 2016.
3 “Syria crisis: Cameron loses Commons vote on Syria action”, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-23892783, retrieved on 29 August, 2016.
4 Interviews and conferences with the Saferworld representatives in Beijing, December 2015.
5 UK policy paper: “2010 to 2015 government policy: governance in developing countries”, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-governance-in-developing-countries/2010-to-2015-government-policy-governance-in-developing-countries, retrieved on 30 August 2016.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ’ to be 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.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – AMISOM Public Information