Yet if the first phase of China’s ‘Go Out’ policy has been a resounding triumph, the complexities of Beijing’s current extensive engagement with Africa require a different approach. China’s very success in developing extensive supply lines to the continent and acquiring large stakes in African economies is vastly increasing its exposure to political risk. The greater its dependence on African goods and African markets, the greater also the costs when access is disrupted. More than one-third of China’s energy imports are now supplied by African partners - a significantly higher proportion than the EU’s or America’s. That is a huge liability when political instability worsens in key producing states.
Outstanding loans by Chinese financial institutions to African governmental entities total more than $70 billion - as much as $100 billion according to some estimates. Questions about the ability of African partners to repay their Chinese debts are becoming more acute as global commodity prices drop and sharp economic downturns in places like Ghana, Angola, Nigeria and Zambia painfully illustrate the mismanagement of the resource bonanza. After years of trumpeting Africa as a land of opportunity, Chinese diplomats and investors are now increasingly describing the continent’s internal dynamics as a headache that threatens their expansion plans.
Traditionally, great powers defend their deepening external economic interests by stepping up political involvement abroad, through embassies, foreign visits and meddling in domestic politics. Over time, they are want to also expand their military presence, in the form of joint exercises, bases, even non-consensual intervention. A classic example is the mutation of the Persian Gulf from geopolitical backwater in the early 20th century into an ‘American lake’ 40 years later. Following the discovery of phenomenal quantities of oil in the 1930s, Western energy titans poured in. They were quickly followed by diplomats and political advisors to buttress the nascent Gulf monarchies who greenlighted the colossal rates of extraction of hydrocarbons. Then came the aircraft carriers and stealth bombers deployed to safeguard pro-Western governments such as Saudi Arabia, or to isolate and even topple ‘rogue regimes’ like post-1979 Iran and Saddam’s Iraq.
Such projection of power is usually less a deliberately plotted strategy by imperial mandarins than an ad hoc escalating response to evolving local conditions. Gradual politicisation and militarization of relations stems from great powers’ fretting that their growing exposure to risk means they need to constantly do more to minimise liabilities and control political uncertainty. Historians thus discern two highly consequential correlations: on the one hand, between surging economic interests in a region and a growing realisation by outsiders that those interests face greater political risks than initially anticipated; and, on the other hand, between the levels of great power anxiety about local politics in resource-rich areas and a tendency to intervene politically and militarily.
A sober, historically grounded assessment of China’s Africa policy today shows that Beijing is displaying many of the symptoms associated with this great power tendency to translate economic interests into a diplomatic and military presence as perceptions of Africa shift from opportunity to the more complex world of risk and liability.
The Chinese Communist Party remains officially committed to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries – a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy since 1949. Yet its response to recent events in Africa has signalled Beijing’s de facto departure from that previously sacrosanct norm. Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China’s troop contributions to UN missions are by far the most extensive. It has sent more than 3,000 military and police to Congo, Liberia, Darfur, Mali and South Sudan, a remarkable reversal of the situation 15 years ago when Beijing fielded less than 100 blue helmets. China has begun deploying combat troops on UN missions, rather than just engineers or civilian police, confronting recalcitrant rebels and jihadist militants. Moreover, the PRC is an important military partner to regional heavyweights such as Algeria, Angola and Nigeria, providing training, arms and technical assistance. From 2008, the Chinese navy also joined European anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden; China has supported a hardline international stance against Somalia’s al-Shabaab rebels, sharing Western worries over their capacity to spread instability to the wider region. This was also evident during the Libyan civil war in 2011 when, in order to evacuate over 35,000 trapped Chinese nationals, several Chinese ships crossed into the Mediterranean for the first time in the modern era, coordinating their operations with NATO. Furthermore, the PRC green-lighted French intervention in Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire even though those operations decisively shifted the domestic political balance in favour of one side. All of this illustrates how the principle of non-interference has been eroded over the last five years.
Nowhere has China’s interventionist policy been more evident than in South Sudan where civil war broke out in 2013 following the country’s secession from Sudan in 2011. Chinese petro-interests there are well documented and the development of an oil industry in the midst of violent conflict has provided a steep technical and political learning curve over the last 15 years for Chinese governmental and business actors. However, the rift among South Sudan’s ruling elite and the destruction brought to oil-producing areas in the ensuing civil war forced Beijing to take on a role it had not previously played in Africa.
Thousands of Chinese nationals required evacuation. Beijing approved the deployment of special forces to protect its assets in the states of Unity and Upper Nile. Its much-lauded Special Envoy for Africa, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, has devoted much time and energy working with the United States, Ethiopia and the African Union to find a political solution. To bring belligerents to the table and force them to sign a peace deal, China has shown itself willing to help threaten and impose international sanctions on both government officials and insurgents. It has also received rebel delegations in Beijing and tabled proposals for security sector reform in ways that fundamentally contradict the interests of the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir. The realities of Chinese engagement on the ground in South Sudan look very different than Beijing’s historical interpretation of the principle of non-interference.
Ongoing conflicts in Burundi, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia and terrorism in Egypt and Kenya are only amplifying pressures for China to step up its involvement. This is the context for Beijing’s 2015 decision to open a ‘naval installation’ - many would say ‘naval base’ - in Djibouti. The location could not be more strategic. Djibouti is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Suez Canal; it is crucial for monitoring the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen; and it is the main port for provisioning the 100 million citizens of Ethiopia, a country where China has major economic interests.
Official communications from the People’s Liberation Army stress the ‘outpost’ is meant for low-scale resupply and refuelling of ships participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. While this is not incorrect, it is incomplete: the naval facility is an important signal that strategists in Beijing are increasingly framing their economic interests as leading inexorably to political and security responsibilities. Djibouti, which also hosts French and American military bases, is a key node from which the projection of more raw forms of power in Africa is now, for the first time, being considered as an option for Beijing.
Does this mean that a new Cold War, this time between China and the West, is on the horizon, with possibly devastating consequences for Africans? Not necessarily.
Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed his vision of China as a global maritime power, a responsible international player and a partner for African peace and development - roles the Chinese President sees as mutually supportive. For the time being, China’s increasingly interventionist instincts on the continent dovetail with Western stabilisation agendas and African incumbents’ clamours for external support to hold jihadists and ethno-regional insurgents at bay. Rather than pitting different powers against one another, the growing militarisation of Africa rests on a broad consensus. Western and African leaders, along with Chinese business executives, are urging a more proactive security role for the People’s Republic.
In the longer run, however, divergent interpretations of political crises on the continent and sharp-edged differences between internal and external players are bound to surface. When inevitably they do, China will not limit itself to rhetoric of South-South solidarity and political agnosticism. Rather, the Communist Party will be increasingly tempted to rely on and experiment with the ever more comprehensive spectrum of political, diplomatic and military instruments at the disposal of its Africa policy.
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 – See-ming Lee