That increased Chinese involvement prompted the European Union back in 2008 to propose the development of trilateral cooperation with China and Africa. The initiative enjoyed little success at the time. Yet there is untapped potential for increased cooperation, notably in jointly addressing non-traditional security threats such as piracy in the Gulfs of Aden and Guinea, pandemics, arms proliferation and terrorism.
That potential for cooperation has been highlighted in the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation1. Despite opposing narratives on issues of sovereignty and non-intervention, there are signs of a gradual convergence of strategic interests and - to a lesser extent - policy responses for dealing with African security challenges.
Europe and China have an important stake in Africa’s stability. Peace and security feature prominently in the dialogues and summits that China and the EU each host with their African counterparts. For Beijing, this has accelerated since the establishment of the China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security in 20122.
Expanding investments by Chinese companies in fragile African states and approximately one million Chinese citizens estimated to be living and working in Africa3 has left China deeply entrenched in the security dynamics of the continent.
Chinese workers and facilities have been targeted by terrorists and rebel groups including Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, ISIS and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Three Chinese railway executives perished during the 2015 terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako. Three Chinese peacekeepers were recently killed in South Sudan and Mali.
Such events have triggered a debate in China on foreign policy concepts looking beyond traditional non-interference principles. They have led to a more activist foreign policy and a robust physical engagement in Africa as demonstrated by the willingness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to engage in ‘Military Operations Other than War’. This has included troop deployments on UN peacekeeping operations, anti-piracy missions, rescue-and-relief activities, civilian evacuations and counter-terrorism exercises. China has also built its first overseas logistics facility, in Djibouti.
China’s 2013 National Defence White Paper, for the first time, includes a section on ‘protecting overseas interests’ that acknowledges the vulnerability of Chinese national interests to the changing nature of security threats. Consequently, it affords a foreign policy priority to the protection of overseas citizens and assets.4
This evolution in China’s strategic engagement with Africa opens new avenues for cooperation with the EU.
Beijing is becoming an increasingly important partner for Brussels in international efforts to combat terrorism. This has been facilitated by China’s first counter-terrorism law which took effect at the beginning of 2016 and explicitly authorises “exchanges of intelligence information, enforcement cooperation and international financial monitoring with foreign nations and relevant international organisations.”5
China has also become increasingly supportive of UN peacekeeping operations. Until three years ago, China deployed only non-combat forces such as engineers, logistics and medical units on UN peacekeeping operations. Since then, it has sent a battalion of 700 combat troops to the UN mission in South Sudan and an infantry detachment to serve with the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali. In Mali, the Chinese infantry is based alongside a Dutch unit and, for the first time in the PLA’s history, is also responsible for the security of other countries’ forces. This has led to praise from the international community. Bert Koenders, Dutch foreign minister and former UN Special Representative to Mali, has commended China for its “important work [that] has exceeded expectations.” 6
Among the permanent UN Security Council members, China is the largest troop-contributing country. Around 2,500 Chinese troops are based in Africa, making up 90 percent of its peacekeepers. In addition, President Xi Jinping, in 2015, announced the establishment of a permanent standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers7. The increasing number of Chinese and European soldiers deployed to Africa creates opportunities for closer day-to-day operational communication and information sharing that could prove crucial given China’s lack of experience of such combat operations.
Anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have already created numerous opportunities for interaction and intelligence sharing between European and Chinese armed forces, through their involvement in SHADE – the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction Mechanism. This voluntary multilateral cooperation initiative among naval forces has been regarded as a successful framework that could be applied to future piracy hotspots8. This has strengthened mutual trust. EU NAVFOR and PLA Naval units have exchanged visits and participated in joint counter-piracy exercises to strengthen operational cooperation. In addition, EU and Chinese ships have escorted World Food Programme vessels carrying aid to Somalia.
While international efforts have led to a steady decline in piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea has seen an increase in attacks on shipping and hostage taking. Assaults there account for almost a quarter of all recorded piracy attacks, making it “one of the most dangerous maritime areas in the world”, according to the International Crisis Group9.
So far, the EU and China have taken different approaches with little coordination between them. China’s approach has been mostly bilateral: strengthening the capacity of individual nations, building infrastructure, military training, providing financial and technical resources. The Chinese navy made its first port calls in four countries in West Africa in 2014 and conducted joint anti-piracy drills with the Nigerian and Cameroonian navies10. The EU, for its part, has a dedicated anti-piracy mission – the EU Critical Maritime Routes in the Gulf of Guinea Programme11.
However, at present, the EU is not considering a military solution on the model of EU NAVFOR in the Gulf of Guinea. Instead, Brussels is giving preference to strengthening regional and national ownership. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) adopted a code of conduct on fighting against piracy in 201312. However, the EU and China should devise a scenario to build on synergies between them should national and regional efforts risk being overwhelmed by a surge of piracy attacks. China, for instance, could join the G7++ friends of Gulf of Guinea Maritime Capacity Building Platform, which aims to enhance coordination on regional capacity building.
A widely cited area of potential cooperation between European militaries and the PLA is the evacuation of non-combatants from crisis zones, especially since protection of nationals is acquiring a bigger priority in China’s foreign and security policies. Over the past decade, China has conducted several non-combatant evacuation operations, most notably the lifting of 35,000 citizens from Libya at the outset of the civil war. It received assistance from EU member nations. In 2015, Beijing evacuated hundreds of China National Petroleum Corporation workers in South Sudan; and in Yemen, China’s military has assisted for the first time in the evacuation of foreign nationals13. China and the EU should discuss scenarios for future evacuation cooperation in Africa.
Arms control is key to successful anti-terrorism strategies. The EU and China have worked together in the framework of the Africa-China-EU Expert Working Group on Conventional Arms. It met several times between 2012 and 2014 to find ways of tackling the circulation of illicit small arms across the continent and develop better arms control mechanisms. In its final report, the group highlighted potential areas for future cooperation: EU and Chinese technical expertise could enhance stockpile management and help refurbish storage facilities in line with international standards; they could assist African governments working to enhance border monitoring against arms smuggling14. Cooperation in this field is, however, limited by the EU arms embargo on China.
The inclusion of epidemics as non-traditional security threats gained importance after the Ebola crisis. Particular attention should be given to devising research projects and common strategies to investigate and combat major pandemics like malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Although still at a very early stage, it is worth highlighting cooperation initiated in 2015 between France’s Merieux Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to conduct joint research on emerging pathogens in Mali15.
These examples illustrate that the myriad of non-traditional security challenges cannot be addressed by one country alone. Addressing these challenges requires new cooperative and innovative approaches. Europe’s and China’s shared concern surrounding Africa’s stability (for reasons of geographical proximity in the case of the former, and as a result of the exponential growth of its investments in the case of the latter) and the prioritization of non-traditional security threats in their respective foreign policies provides a strong basis for increased cooperation.
The pragmatic evolution of Chinese foreign policy in Africa in response to the changing nature of security threats has also paved the way for greater diplomatic and security cooperation with the EU, although a concrete roadmap for bilateral cooperation has yet to fully materialise. China’s approach to security will likely remain cautious, characterised by self-restraint and minimal use of force. It also remains to be seen how recent military and civilian casualties will affect China’s stance on peacekeeping. However, China’s role as a global security provider should be warmly welcomed.
1 European External Action Service (2013). EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation. Retrieved from http://eeas.europa.eu/china/docs/20131123_agenda_2020__en.pdf
2 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (2012, 10 September) ”Fifth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC opens further China-Africa cooperation”, FOCAC. Retrieved from http://www.focac.org/eng/dwjbzjjhys/t954274.htm
3 Brookings (2016, July 11). Setting the Record Straight on China’s Engagement in Africa. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/07/11/setting-the-record-straight-on-chinas-engagement-in-africa/
4 Information Office of the State Council (2013). The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Retrieved from http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Database/WhitePapers/2012.htm
5 Counter-Terrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China, passed by the 18th Session of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress on December 27, 2015. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-12/27/c_128571798.htm
6 The Diplomat (2013, August 9), China Embraces Peacekeeping Missions. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2013/08/china-embraces-peacekeeping-missions
7 Reuters (2015, September 28) China’s Xi says to commit 8,000 troops for UN Peacekeeping force. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-assembly-china-idUSKCN0RS1Z120150929
8 For more information, see http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/matrix/shared-awareness-and-deconfliction-shade
9 International Crisis Group (2012). The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone. Retrieved from https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/guinea/gulf-guinea-new-danger-zone
10 China Military Online (2014, June 3). Chinese Naval Fleet Pays First Visit to Cameroon. Retrieved from http://eng.mod.gov.cn/DefenseNews/2014-06/03/content_4513776.htm; China Military Online (2014, May 29), Chinese and Nigerian Navies Conduct First Anti-Piracy Joint Drill. Retrieved from http://eng.mod.gov.cn/DefenseNews/2014-05/29/content_4512775.htm
11 For more information, see http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/matrix/eu-critical-maritime-routes-programme-cmr
12 Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illicit Maritime Activity in West and Central Africa. Full Text available online at: http://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Security/WestAfrica/Documents/code_of_conduct%20signed%20from%20ECOWAS%20site.pdf
13 Reuters (2015, April 3). China Evacuates Foreign Nationals In Unprecedented Move. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-china-idUSKBN0MU09M20150403
14 Gramizzi, C. (2014). Tackling Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and Ammunition in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Final Working Paper
15 Cabestan, J.P. (2016). France-China Cooperation in Africa: The Emergence and the Limits of a New Initiative. Paper presented at the Yale China-Africa Conference on Africa-China Relations: Balance, Growth and a Sustainable Future, Lagos Business School, Lagos, Nigeria, 6-7 March 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 – UNMISS