The most official and consistent channel of communications between the two countries is the US-China consultation on African affairs. As of 2016, the State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have held seven rounds of such bilateral consultations. Vice-ministerial level bilateral consultations takes place every two years (on average), with its venue alternating between Beijing and Washington, DC. The consultation is jointly chaired by the Chinese vice/assistant minister and the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, who are the top officials in charge of the African policies for their countries.
Until 2011, Chinese official press releases on these consultations suggested that much of the conversation focused on learning about each other’s priorities for their African policies and new issues in their cooperation with Africa. Such wording has disappeared since the fifth round of consultations, as has the phrase ‘positive comments by the US on the contribution China has made to African development in recent years’. One consistent theme of the consultations has been ‘in-depth exchanges of opinions’ on the situation in Africa and key regional issues. Based on these exchanges, the US and China are committed to strengthening communications and coordination to help Africa achieve peace, stability, and development.
Although Africa has emerged onto the US-China bilateral cooperation agenda, the action doesn’t meet the rhetoric. Cooperation on the ground generally takes place in a multilateral context – such as through UN missions, where the US and China work together on African peace and conflict issues. The US remains the largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, amounting to 28% of the $8.2bn annual budget, while China is only the sixth-largest financial contributor, providing 6.64% of the total peacekeeping budget. However, China is the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The total number of Chinese peacekeepers (2,262) is almost twice as large as the other four countries’ contributions combined. Since 2013, China has provided security forces for the first time in MINUSMA, the UN’s mission in Mali. This trend continued in 2014, when China started to deploy combat troops to UNMISS, the mission in South Sudan.
The two countries work with each other in strengthening the UN’s peacekeeping capability. Last September the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, used his state visit to the US to reach an agreement with his American counterpart, Barack Obama, under which both countries would increase their “robust” peacekeeping commitments. Responding to Obama’s call, Xi announced that China would join the new UN peacekeeping capability readiness system and would lead in setting up a permanent peacekeeping police squad, building a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops.
Besides top-level political commitments to cooperate, the two countries recognise the need to deepen their partnership on peace operations and learn from each other’s practical experiences. For example, in March 2016 an eight-member US military observer delegation visited the Chinese peacekeeping infantry battalion in South Sudan. The visit did not go beyond a courtesy call, but highlighted that there is an exchange of communications and information.
Another key area for multilateral security cooperation between the US and China in Africa is counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Under the authorisation and mandate of UN Security Council Resolutions, countries including China and the US have deployed forces in the region to tackle the rising threat of piracy. For instance, the Chinese naval presence focuses on escorting Chinese and foreign ships in the area. The US and China have held bilateral counter-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa aimed at promoting partnership, strength and presence. For example, an exercise held in 2014 included combined visit, board, search and seizure operations, communication exchanges and various other aspects of naval operations. Beyond this exercise, both the US and China participate in multilateral mechanisms for information-sharing.
The counter-piracy cooperation highlights the great potential for US-China collaboration. The two powers have committed resources and are willing to work together when the stakes are high and the threat is dire. This counter-piracy work could pave the way for more cooperation in broader areas on safeguarding freedom of navigation and addressing non-traditional, lethal security threats in other parts of Africa.
The scope of bilateral collaboration under a multilateral framework is expanding. Nevertheless, certain obstacles will hinder the pace and depth of cooperation. Using the escort missions in the Gulf of Aden as an example, China prefers unilateral escort missions to multilateral cooperative ones for fear of being ensnared in the rules, systems, and agendas of Western countries. As a result, the nature of the Chinese escort missions has remained largely defensive and protective; China is very reluctant to actively pursue pirates. This approach is closely associated with China’s defensive overseas military strategy, and is unlikely to change in the near future.
Discussions between the US and China on counter-piracy in Africa seems to be gaining momentum recently, at least on the Track-II level, that is non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities. On 27 July 2016, the Carter Center convened its third Africa-China-United States Consultation for Peace and Development in Lomé, Togo. This year’s consultation focused on maritime piracy as well as peace-related issues in the Sahel region (covering western and north-central Africa from Senegal to Sudan). China’s former special representative for African Affairs, Zhong Jianhua, and the former US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, co-chaired the Track-II dialogue. This may indeed be the first trilateral dialogue between Africa, China and the US on maritime security.
Given the challenges and the stakes, people may expect more in-depth dialogue and concrete action involving the US and China regarding African security. While action is focused on the multilateral level at the moment, there is still great potential for bilateral cooperation. When compared to heated US-China discussions on other security issues, Africa perhaps presents the best opportunity for cooperation between Beijing and Washington.
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 – U.S. Department of State