China, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for Africa’s oil, iron ore, metals and new export markets, has in the last fifteen years become the continent’s largest economic partner, with trade totalling an impressive $160bn in 2015.2
There is little doubt about China’s long-term interest in the continent. In December 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping told the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC) that investment in the continent would be tripled, to $60 billion.3
So what can we make of the future relationship between these two significant geopolitical actors on the African stage? On what issues might they converge or diverge? A closer examination of China’s motivations, juxtaposed with the interests and role of NATO, may provide some answers.
Chinese motivations and NATO
China’s involvement in Africa is based on two pillars: strategic diplomacy and business. In its early years, the People’s Republic reached out to non-aligned countries in Africa and established warm (though not very consequential) relationships with socialist regimes in countries such as Tanzania.
The shift towards developing China’s economy began under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s and changed the tone and nature of relations with Africa. Securing raw materials for China’s state-owned enterprises became the main focus of China’s enhanced approach to the African continent. As was typical of China’s “peaceful rise” era, Chinese businesses set up shop and developed commercial relations in many African countries without attracting much Western attention.
Meanwhile, China’s strategic diplomacy changed in purpose by focusing almost entirely on Taiwan. African states that had relations with the island were “punished” by being cut off from China; those that switched allegiance were rewarded. Business interests and cultivating many of Africa’s 54 United Nations General Assembly votes became twin objectives.
In 2006, Beijing issued its first White Paper on Africa, calling for ‘comprehensive and long-term cooperation’.4 Following an old Chinese saying, ‘to end poverty, build a road’5, Chinese companies have become increasingly involved in building infrastructure, power plants and bandwidth, as well as exploring minerals and establishing markets for Chinese products.
The most recent switch of emphasis in Chinese foreign policy has been a subtle change in China’s strategic diplomacy. With the rise of Xi Jinping, China has dropped the “keeping a low profile” description of Chinese foreign policy and replaced it with “striving for achievement”6. Western literature often calls this China’s “new assertive approach”.7
The main change in China’s strategic diplomacy in Africa is its willingness to go beyond economic infrastructure-building and move into “international structure”. The argument advanced by a leading group of Chinese scholars is that China’s relations with Africa (as well as developing areas in Latin America and Asia) should take on more “comprehensive political power”, highlighting China’s moral and political alternative to the Western democratic model.
The ideal formulated by this school of thought is for China to be recognised as a “humane authority”8 that is on the ground not only to do business, but also to use its power and influence to provide “strategic reliability”9. The goal is ambitious: it involves creating a global perception of China as the world power that offers stable and prosperous friendship.
We see this new policy at work in Africa, where China underwrites more and more UN peacekeeping work. In 2010, China was the largest peacekeeping contributor of the five permanent UN Security Council members.10 China offers engineers, transportation and logistics, civilian police, medical staff and facilities. Between 2000 and 2010 there was a twenty-fold increase in China’s participation, growing to with more than 2100 peacekeepers, perhaps more aptly called peacekeeping support staff, in 2010.11
With this backdrop to the evolution of China’s presence in Africa, an April 2014 analysis by Brookings12 offers a useful summary of the key policy drivers behind the country’s contemporary engagement in Africa:
‘Politically, China seeks Africa’s support for China’s “One China” policy …
‘Economically, Africa is seen primarily as a source of natural resources and market opportunities to fuel China’s domestic growth.
‘From a security standpoint, the rising presence of Chinese commercial interests in Africa has led to growing security challenges for China, as the safety of Chinese investments and personnel come under threats due to political instability and criminal activities …
‘China also sees an underlying ideological interest in Africa, as the success of the “China model” in non-democratic African countries offers indirect support for China’s own political ideology and offers evidence that Western democratic ideals are not universal.’
NATO is the world’s preeminent military Alliance, established to, in the words of its 1949 founding treaty, ‘safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of [its] peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law [and] to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area’. As such, it is necessarily principally concerned with China’s security and ideological motivations as set out in the Brookings analysis. Both China and NATO share a preoccupation with stability and security in Africa, but have differing approaches towards governance.
Ensuring Africa’s security and stability
During his tenure as NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen often argued that China and the Alliance had common security concerns regarding ‘transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, regional stability, energy security and maritime piracy’13. It is not hard for the contemporary analyst to see a number of these concerns – particularly terrorism, instability and maritime risks – continuing to be a reality on the African stage.
From North Africa to the Sahel, uncontrolled migration, the rise of Islamist terrorist groups, arms proliferation and continued political instability in places such as Libya, Mali and Somalia continue to pose a threat to Europeans and their economic interests. While African migrants may be less of a concern for China, there are dangers posed to its economic interests – for example, the pursuit of lawful commerce at sea close to African shores, and the protection of its growing diaspora on the continent.
During the 2011 Libyan uprising, China had to evacuate more than 35,000 Chinese workers.14 So given these converging security concerns, what might NATO and China do on land and at sea to address them? Historic precedent suggests a preference for complementary rather than joint initiatives, although the latter cannot be entirely excluded.
At sea, both NATO and China have deployed naval assets to address the risk of piracy off the coast of Somalia. This is part of a broader international effort – for NATO under its Operation Ocean Shield; for China (as for India and some others) on an independent basis. While NATO and China’s operations are distinct, interaction – through meetings of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) initiative, for example – had helped to build mutual trust over the years.
Thanks to the SHADE process, ‘China, India and Japan in early 2012 agreed to coordinate their merchant vessel escort convoys through the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC) with one country being ‘reference nation’ for a period of three months on a rotational basis’15.
While NATO’s Ocean Shield is set to wrap up at the end of 2016 due to the near eradication of piracy off the coast of Somalia, there is the possibility of future Alliance interaction with the Chinese navy to maintain order at sea. As the Alliance’s July 2016 Warsaw summit communiqué stated:
‘We note that the last successful pirate attack in the Indian Ocean took place in May 2012. While we have agreed to terminate the Operation at the end of 2016, NATO will remain engaged in the fight against piracy by maintaining maritime situational awareness and continuing close links with other international counter-piracy actors.’16
In this context, it is interesting to note that both NATO and China have established long-term relations with strategically-located Djibouti: China signed a ten-year leasing agreement to build a logistical hub17; and NATO established an official liaison office in 201518.
In the Mediterranean, the increased presence of Chinese naval assets alongside long-standing NATO ships have led some analysts to go as far as argue for joint Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) patrols.19 At a minimum, complementary capacity-building efforts to assist Africans in the implementation of their continent-wide “2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy” (2050 AIM Strategy) would be a worthwhile pursuit.
Complementary land-based efforts to forge Africa’s security and stability are also foreseeable. While China is unlikely ever to countenance the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army under a NATO-led UN-mandated operation, it may do so as part of a UN force where NATO and Chinese interests coincide. This is, in fact, already happening in Mali: since 2013, China has deployed a force protection unit as part of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).20 In this context, it is useful to consider once more, the NATO Warsaw summit communiqué :
‘Terrorist acts and the trafficking of arms, drugs, and human beings across the Sahel-Sahara region continue to threaten regional and our own security. We welcome the efforts of the UN and the EU, and underscore the importance of a strong commitment by the international community to address the complex security and political challenges in this region. In Mali, we welcome the endorsement of the peace agreement, the steps taken in its implementation, and the support of the international community to the stabilisation of the country’.21
China and NATO may also work together to build up the AU’s own peace and security architecture. Both parties are committed to the principle of “African solutions to African problems” or – as it is otherwise described – the tenet of “Africa-proposed, Africa-agreed and Africa-led.” This principle becomes practice in a shared commitment to help operationalise the African Standby Force (ASF). Although the form of support may differ – NATO offers training, education, logistical and operational support, but no direct financing and equipment, while China recently pledged $100m in military aid – the end goal is the same. As a senior Chinese diplomat recently remarked:
‘China advocates a new concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security in cooperation with Africa. We propose that all countries should make concerted efforts to jointly build a road of shared security that is win-win to all, and abandon the Cold War and zero-sum mentalities … We support African people in addressing African issues and highlight the leading role of the AU…’22
The Chinese position appears to be in line with NATO’s Warsaw summit communiqué: ‘We look forward to further strengthening and expanding our political and practical partnership with the AU, so we are better able to respond together to common threats and challenges.’23
While China and NATO may have a shared interest in helping Africans to provide for their own continental security and stability, questions of engagement and governance are another matter. As the American analyst Robert D. Kaplan observes:
‘Chinese military aid does not come with lectures about human rights the way the West’s does … Chinese foreign policy, without being in any way extreme or bellicose, nevertheless represents the bleakest form of realism. It indicates a new bipolarity in the world: between those states that employ human rights as part of their policy calculations and those that do not.’24
So, while Beijing will have no qualms about engaging with any African regime – despotic or democratic, the most brutal violator of human rights or the most peaceful – NATO will, by virtue of its founding principles, be more discerning. Governments committed to the rule of law and individual liberty – and the AU, with its 2000 Constitutive Act, is no exception in this regard – will assume pride of place. As these authors have argued elsewhere, the Alliance’s common principles do not put NATO’s foreign and security policy beyond criticism. Its members are also self-interested states pursing material benefits. However, restraint is a key and regular feature of military policy and action.
The rule of law guides domestic and foreign decisions.25 Kaplan chooses to refer to this as ‘Realpolitik with a conscience’26. Simply put, China may engage with some African regimes that NATO will not countenance.
The global strategic “competition” between Western (including NATO and the EU) and Chinese values is a political reality that is now extended to the field of security. However, it does not preclude NATO and China working towards the same objectives. African peace-building is the shared goal. Ultimately, African nations will decide which political model suits them best. Focusing on the shared goal deflects from a zero-sum formulation of the relationship. As a result of constructive interaction in many (although clearly not all) parts of Africa, NATO and China may gain strategic and tactical benefits: strategic, in the sense of finding common objectives and mutually reinforcing efforts that include dialogue; tactical, in the sense of working alongside and learning from each other.
1 See www.nato.org
2 Rudyard Kipling, “What China Knows about Africa That the West Doesn’t”, The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org
3 Yun Sun, “Xi and the 6th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation: Major commitments, but with questions”, Africa in Focus, Brookings, 7 December 2015. www.brookings.edu
4 Li Ashan, “China and Africa: Policy and Challenges,” China Security, Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 2007, p. 70.
5 Deborah Brautigam, Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 308.
6 See: Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2014, pp. 153-184.
7 For example, see: “Dialogue of the deaf,” The Economist, 4 June 2016, p. 38.
8 Yan Xuetong (Edited by Daniel Bell), Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
9 Ibid, p. 88.
10 Zhao Lei, “Two Pillars of China’s Global Engagement Strategy: UN Peacekeeping and International Peacebuilding,” International Peacekeeping, Vol. 18, Issue 3, 2011, p. 346.
11 Chin-Hao Huang, “Principles and Praxis of China’s Peacekeeping,” International Peacekeeping, Vol. 18, Issue 3, 2011, pp. 257-270.
12 Yun Sun, “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy”, Brookings John L. Thornton China Center and Africa Growth Initiative, April 2014, p. 1.
13 Richard Weitz, “China and NATO: Grappling with Beijing’s Hopes and Fears”, China Brief, Volume 12 Issue 13, www.jamestown.org
14 Noah Feldman, “What Is China’s Navy Doing in the Mediterranean”, 1 May 2015, www.bloombergview.com
15 See: http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/matrix/shared-awareness-and-deconfliction-shade
16 See: www.nato.int
17 Dave, Majumdar, “China Is Setting Up Its First Military Base in Africa”, The National Interest, www.naitonalinterest.org
18 Mohammed Osman Farah, “NATO to Open Office in Djibouti to Support Anti-Piracy Efforts”, Bloomberg, 23 April 2015, www.bloomberg.com
19 See: Christina Lin, “China’s pivot West – Opportunities for Cooperative Security” in NATO and Asia-Pacific, Moens and Smith-Windsor (ed.), NATO Defense College Forum Paper 25, Rome: NATO Defense College, 2016, pp. 219-235.
20 Frans Paul van der Putten, “China’s Evolving Role in Peacekeeping and African Security: The Deployment of Chinese Troops for UN Force Protection in Mali”, Clingendael Report, September 2015.
21 See: www.nato.int
22 Remarks by Chinese Ambassador to Ghana, Sun Baohong, at Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College, 20 May 2016, www.fmprc.gov.cn
23 See: www.nato.int
24 Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon, New York: Random House, 2010, p. 208.
25 Alexander Moens and Brooke A. Smith-Windsor (eds.), NATO and Asia-Pacific, NDC Forum Paper 25, Rome: NATO Defense College, 2016, pp. 239-241.
26 Kaplan, p. 190.
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.
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