Africa is playing a prominent part in Chinese foreign and security policy as Beijing searches for responses to the complex demands of its evolving global role. China’s Africa policy should not be seen in isolation from other foreign policy trends under President Xi Jinping.
At the same time, a variety of African actors are looking for ways to best fit China into existing peace and security structures and wonder how this will affect relations with other outside players like the European Union.
The People's Republic of China’s military relations with Africa date back to the 1960s. China supported various African anti-colonial liberation movements but its role was mostly confined to military training and assistance. From the 1980's, amidst domestic reform and opening, China's relations with Africa became increasingly dominated by economic considerations, yet the shared post-colonial military history is still used to enhance current military partnerships, for example between the People's Liberation Army and Sudan's armed forces.
Since around 2000, when the development of China-Africa relations was marked and given further impetus by the first Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, relations between the continent and continental-like China have become more consequential and complex. In this new phase, the need to protect existing and expand further economic interests in Africa has required China to take on a more engaged, and at times politicised role. Despite its efforts to uphold long-sacrosanct foreign policy principles of non-interference, the practical reality is that the Chinese government is facing mounting challenges posed by greater Chinese involvement in African politics.
Exposure to conflict has raised the importance of investment protection, as seen in South Sudan. Insecurity is also an impediment to new projects, seen for instance when three senior employees of the China Railway Construction Corporation were killed during a November 2015 assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. This prompted China’s foreign minister to pledge to fight extremism and strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation with Africa.
China's greater visibility in Africa has heightened expectations and increased calls for Beijing to undertake a security role commensurate with its economic interests. The potential for boosting its reputation by exercising international responsibility and contributing to peace and security in Africa is another factor behind China’s changing role.
Mass Chinese migration has brought pressure for Beijing to protect its overseas nationals. This has become a key driver behind efforts to enhance force-projection capability, as shown by the evacuation of Chinese civilians from Chad, Libya and Sudan.
From the African side, there is also interest - led by the African Union - in enhancing security cooperation with China in areas such as anti-terrorism.
Security was declared an area of dedicated China-Africa cooperation in 2012. Before, China had bilateral military relations with most African states, but security was not formally part of the FOCAC process, which was focused on economic and political relations. Since then however, things have developed quickly.
In 2012, FOCAC established the China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security, designed to provide financial assistance, capacity building and other forms of institutionalised support. This came against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and regime change in Libya. In December 2015, measures to promote cooperation on peace and security were strengthened at the sixth FOCAC summit in Johannesburg.
The range of security engagements is now wide. It encompasses traditional and non-traditional threats, evolving beyond purely military concerns and state-based engagement to involve diverse actors, such as oil corporations who have had to develop their own security protocols. Even in non-traditional areas however - such as China’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa – the PLA remains bound up in China's response.
China's role has expanded beyond the FOCAC process and bilateral relations. It is involved in anti-piracy patrols and maritime humanitarian diplomacy, for example.
Although China’s engagement is Africa- and AU-centred, it has a considerable UN component in which China’s seat on the UN Security Council plays a notable role. President Xi Jinping announced increased Chinese contributions to UN peacekeeping and the creation of a standby force at the 2015 UN General Assembly. China’s maintains an active, high-profile UN peacekeeping role in Africa. This enables China to raise its international profile, improve relations with host countries and Western governments, and indirectly protect its interests abroad.
The evolution of China's peacekeeping contributions from support roles to force protection, has the added value of providing operational experience for the PLA, for example the first deployment of Chinese combat troops under a UN Chapter VII mandate enabling military force, in the UN Mission in South Sudan.
China’s global security engagement has also fed into its growing African ties. Since 2012, China has been seeking to establish itself as a ‘maritime great power’. The leasing of a military logistics base in Djibouti, announced in December 2015, is a significant departure from its previous policy. As China’s first overseas military base, it confirms Beijing's use of power projection in foreign policy.
A number of challenges are important in their own right and as the potential basis for China's increased cooperation with other external partners in Africa.
First, China has been deepening its already important military relations with some African states. This is illustrated by recent joint exercises with Tanzania and connections with East Africa under the Maritime Silk Road initiative. However, the issue of arms transfers remains contentious. China’s role in the arms trade is not as great as some imagine, but it is significant and is rendered more complicated by the actions of profit-seeking arms-manufacturing corporations.
Second, the Chinese government has supported efforts of the AU and regional bodies to mediate in conflicts such as South Sudan. This has involved coordination with European governments and the United States. China’s future role in peace mediation is an area to watch, but Beijing's default position is likely to remain a preference for following the AU’s lead.
Third, tensions between state-based engagement and the wider diversity of Chinese interests have been exemplified by the challenges of protecting Chinese nationals. Clearly China needs enhanced measures to protect its citizens and investments in Africa, but putting them into practice is very demanding.
Fourth, China faces tensions between its foreign policy principles and the practicalities of protecting its interests. Beijing continues to uphold the principle of non-interference and only supports what it deems legitimate peacekeeping interventions based on state consent and due UN process. However, faced with threats to its reputation and its economic interests, Beijing - in places such as South Sudan - has had to negotiate the difficult terrain between non-interference and the concept of 'non-indifference' as set out by the African Union.
Finally, the changing economic context of China-Africa relations may also compound tensions caused by security issues. A widely proclaimed view in China, reiterated by President Xi in December 2016 at FOCAC, is that economic development is the best guarantee of security. This echoed the official view that development is the best guarantee of security. In part this underscores the connections with China’s domestic policy context and its Africa relations. The economic downturn in China has increased fears that development initiatives will suffer in the context of ‘new normal’ economics. The impact on China’s engagement with security is unclear.
In peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, China’s engagement involves debate about its conceptual differences with African and Western thinking. It also reprises dilemmas about the relationship between security and development which in practice has proved challenging for China. Notwithstanding such dynamics, it is clear that working towards greater peace and security in Africa is of vital importance to China and all parties concerned.
China’s peace and security engagement in Africa involves many aspects that are evolving concurrently with its changing role in the continent and the world.
Beijing's old foreign policy principles are being tested by the evolving realities of its diverse engagement with the continent. As seen with the death of two Chinese UN peacekeepers in South Sudan in July 2016, media coverage is closing geographical distance and testing the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to react. A vigorous debate within China about how best to respond has already brought in European and African participation. Further such dialogue would be constructive in advancing understanding on possible paths forward.
Peace and security have taken on a prominent official position in China-Africa relations, but it is unclear how aspirations will be converted into practice within the African peace and security architecture. The AU’s interest in working with external partners to advance security has created potential for future cooperation. Now, much will depend on how the African Union Peace and Security Council can take partnerships forward.
China’s growing security role combines reactive and adaptive approaches with efforts to address more strategic policy concerns. This creates opportunities for collaborative ventures to address Africa's many serious security challenges. The EU should bear in mind that China's default position reflects that of the AU: that cooperation on security ventures should be proposed, agreed and led by Africa. That means EU efforts to collaborate on security with China must give a central role to the AU, regional organisations and other key African players.
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 – United Nations Photo