Over the past five years the Chinese military presence in Africa has undergone a profound change. Until 2012, the Chinese were happy to play a low-key support role in multinational peacekeeping operations on the continent, preferring to send military engineers and medical staff rather than deploy combat forces. Today, that is no longer the case. China is in fact the eighth-largest supplier of troops for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and the largest among the five permanent Security Council members, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The large and growing Chinese military presence in Africa is also becoming increasingly diverse both in terms of where its forces are deployed and their operational capacity. China’s most sophisticated warships have been actively involved in multinational anti-piracy operations since 2008 off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. In West Africa, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed elite medical units, including a massive hospital ship, to Ebola-ravaged regions in Liberia and Sierra Leone and, similarly, Chinese military medical teams have also been dispatched to the eastern DRC where they provide desperately needed healthcare to the embattled civilian population.
Around 2014, the Chinese began to shift their military engagement strategy in Africa to include the deployment of combat-ready infantry units to countries like Mali and South Sudan where the United Nations is being actively targeted by Islamist radicals and partisan fighters. Although three Chinese soldiers have been killed this year in Africa, experts note these PLA combat forces are typically confined to their bases and rarely venture outside the wire. Nonetheless, the fact that the Chinese have taken that first step in redefining their role in African security operations is significant and with the imminent completion of the PLA Navy’s new outpost in Djibouti, it seems likely that this trend will continue in the coming years.
Mathieu Duchâtel, Richard Gowan & Manuel Lafont Rapnouil recently explored China’s new military engagement strategy in Africa in a policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations. The trio raised the interesting question of how a more robust Chinese security presence in Africa will impact European military operations on the continent given that countries like France and Britain among others have long considered Africa to be a traditional sphere of influence. Mathieu and Manuel join Cobus to discuss the rapidly changing multinational security architecture in Africa.
- The China Global South Project: interview with former US ambassador David Shinn on China’s expanding military presence in Africa
- Quartz: China reacts to the death of two peacekeepers in South Sudan with grief and rage by Lily Kuo and Echo Huang Yinyin
- South China Morning Post: Tributes for Chinese peacekeeper Shen Liangliang, killed by jihadists in attack on UN Mali mission by Agence France Presse
Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is Senior Policy Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia and China Programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations. Based in the Paris office of the ECFR, he works on Asian security, with a focus on maritime affairs, the Korean peninsula, China’s foreign policy and EU-China relations.
Before joining ECFR in November 2015, he was Senior Researcher and the Representative in Beijing of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2011-2015), Research Fellow with Asia Centre in Paris (2007-2011) and Associate Researcher based in Taipei with Asia Centre (2004-2007). He holds a Ph.D in political science from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po, Paris). He has spent a total of nine years in Shanghai (Fudan University), Taipei (National Chengchi University) and Beijing and has been visiting scholar at the School of International Studies of Peking University in 2011/2012 and the Japan Institute of International Affairs in 2015. His latest co-authored book, China’s Strong Arm, Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad was published in the Adelphi collection by IISS and Routledge in 2015.
From 2011 to 2015 he headed the Political Affairs Division of the Department for UN affairs at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development; in this capacity, he was responsible for French foreign policy at the United Nations Security Council, including peacekeeping and sanctions. Prior to that, he held various postings within the French diplomatic service, including in Washington and at the Policy Planning Staff (Centre d’Analyse, de Prévision et de Stratégie).
He was also a rapporteur for both French White papers on Defence and National Security and on Foreign and European Policy (2008). From 2008 to 2010, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Europe Programme of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.