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China’s growing security role in Africa Suggestions for a European response

Tom Bayes, International Consultant

As it emerges as a global security actor, Beijing is actively pursuing a greater role in African peace and security – which it established as a priority area for Sino-African ties in 2018. In recent years, China has stepped up military diplomacy, training and arms sales on the continent (becoming the second-largest supplier); mediated conflicts; and expanded its role in UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs) both quantitatively and qualitatively. Beijing has also located its first overseas military base on the continent, in Djibouti. Coupled with its considerable economic and diplomatic influence on the continent, China’s growing engagement with African security raises new challenges and opportunities for Africa and its existing security partners, including European actors in the EU and NATO. This #MDPD paper on democracy and development draws on fieldwork in eight African countries, including interviews of senior military officers, government officials, politicians, researchers and civil society actors, as well as foreign diplomats and officials of international organisations.

II. Beijing’s motives

 

​​​The drivers of China’s increased security engagement in Africa are both practical and political:

 

- Protecting economic interests:

China’s development – and thus regime stability – depends on international trade flows. Over 10,000 Chinese companies operate in Africa, acquiring resources and selling industrial outputs. Chinese economic interests proliferate, often in risky environments. Their protection has become a priority of China’s defence and foreign policies – including as one of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ‘eight strategic tasks’.

 

- Protecting Chinese citizens:

Upwards of one million Chinese citizens live in Africa. As they have become caught up in conflict or fallen victim to terrorism, their protection, too, has become a new priority for Beijing. Chinese propaganda increasingly stresses the Party-State’s role as the protector of Chinese people overseas, buttressing regime legitimacy. Tangibly, Beijing has conducted non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs), notably deploying PLA assets for the first time to evacuate 40,000 Chinese from Libya in 2011.

 

- Boosting military modernisation:

China’s military is modernising to meet Xi Jinping’s goal of a ‘world-class military’ by the PRC’s centenary in 2049. African arms sales provide financial and feedback inputs to Chinese weapons development. African deployments, including UNPKOs, joint exercises, NEOs, and humanitarian missions, meanwhile help alleviate what the PLA’s official newspaper dubs its ‘peace disease’ – the institutional degradation and erosion of deployment skills resulting from its lack of combat exposure since the failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

 

- Strengthening Sino-African ties:

Through enhanced security cooperation, Beijing aims to rebalance and deepen China-Africa relations, away from purely commercial exchanges. This mitigates the pushback in some African countries against China’s economic role and – as Chinese analysts have noted – allows Beijing to better compete with Western actors that retain important African security roles. China’s leaders also present boosted security cooperation as an important building block of a ‘China-Africa Community with a Shared Future’ (中非命运共同体) in a context of renewed strategic competition in Africa.

 

- Building international influence:

Beijing intends its greater contribution to African security to demonstrate China is a ‘responsible great power’ and thus build its international influence, notably in the UN. China has become the second largest financial contributor to UNPKOs and the largest troop contributor of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, providing a broad range of personnel (medical staff, engineers, combat units, helicopter teams, etc.). State media dub China ‘the backbone of UN peacekeeping’. Beijing hopes to leverage these efforts as further fuel for its already growing influence throughout the UN system, both defensively (to ward off criticism of its domestic and international behaviour) and proactively, to reshape global governance norms to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) liking.

 

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