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Why China will Probably Sidestep Calls for Sahel Involvement

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Senegalese Foreign Minister Aïssata Tall Sall. Image via @AissataOfficiel.

The Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) kicked off in Dakar, Senegal with huge expectations. As usual, there was a lot of talk about trade, investment, and other perennial Africa-China discussion points.

More surprising was the call from Senegalese Foreign Minister Aïssata Tall Sall for China to get involved in the Sahel conflict: “We would like China’s influence to be a strong voice in support of Senegal and all the countries involved in the problem of insecurity in the Sahel, so that our forces there have even more legal means to fight against terrorists and irredentism, and we hope that China will accompany us”, she said.

This is a tempting but dangerous proposition for China. Lessening the ongoing conflict could elevate China’s peace and security game in Africa to a new level. But it could also end up stuck in a muddy conflict with no end in sight. The Sahel is made up of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal. It is characterized by regular droughts and increased conflict over scarce resources like water and pasture. The ongoing marginalization of certain groups, the emergence of transnational criminal elements, and the rapid rise of Islamist extremist groups and movements ensure ongoing conflict.

While the Senegalese foreign minister specified terrorism and irredentism, the conflict is much more complicated than that. The African Union, the Sahel states, and foreign powers have struggled for more than a decade to bring it under control. France intervened in 2013 in an operation dubbed Serval [Wildcat] which was succeeded in 2014 by a broader mission of 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel dubbed Barkhane [Dune.] However, they are grappling with growing hostility from the public and have recently faced violent protests from civilians in Burkina Faso and Niger that led to the deaths of two this week.

The U.S on the other hand has provided substantial security assistance under its trans-Sahara counterterrorism policy instrument meant to help these countries address domestic terrorist threats. Some experts contend that the U.S.’s approach has been overly militaristic with a focus on militant groups, and should be expanded to include a stronger diplomatic focus.

The director for the International Crisis Group in the Sahel, Jean-Herve Jezequel affirmed that militarization of the Sahel is now “very difficult” to curb as civilian self-defense groups have sprung up alongside Jihadist outfits. This is compounded by governance crisis in the region evidenced by the ouster of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after weeks of anti-government protests, the death of Chad’s leader on the frontline against rebels, and the ousting of Mali’s civilian leaders who were supposed to oversee its transitional government reveal the extent of the mess in the Sahel. These challenges fall under what China considers internal affairs. Beijing has frequently criticized intervention as a form of imperialism, and stated its preference for regional political initiatives and mediation to resolve civil conflict. 

It is worth noting that China has long resisted calls for intervention, even as a 2019 white paper on defense laid the groundwork for China to assume a global security presence commensurate with its status as a great power. Despite its huge investments and the growing number of Chinese nationals facing security threats, Chinese leaders have been keen to maintain a light military presence with a focus on a softer approach that distinguishes it from its Western counterparts in Africa.

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