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China’s Evolving Military Strategy in Africa

With some 3,300 military personnel under U.N. command in Africa, China today has more troops deployed to multinational operations than any other permanent member of the Security Council.  That figure is expected to increase sharply in the coming years as Chinese president Xi Jinping moves to increase security cooperation across the continent according to scholars. With the opening of its first overseas base, located in Djibouti, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to be laying the foundation for a more visible, more robust military posture on the continent, both for multilateral operations and to provide security along the new “One Belt, One Road” trade route.

In contrast to the United States, that largely avoids contributing troops to multinational military operations, the Chinese appear to be taking a different approach. Already blue-helmeted Chinese combats troops are active in South Sudan, the PLA Navy has played an instrumental role in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and thousands of humanitarian support staff are spread across the continent in post-conflict zones from the eastern DRC to Mali. Increasingly, other countries are turning to Beijing for military support in Africa as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beijing where he invited the Chinese to assist with a new security initiative in North Africa known as the G5 Sahel that aims to mobilize 10,000 troops to fight terrorism in the region.

In addition to providing troops, China is also writing some big checks to groups like the African Union to help support the group’s security programs. Last fall Beijing offered $100 million over five years to a new African Standby Force and an AU rapid-response force.

No doubt many people in Africa, and elsewhere around the world, may regard China’s growing military footprint across the continent as evidence of new imperialism, most scholars on the subject would likely disagree. “To understand China’s gradualist engagement in African security affairs, one must understand the evolving context of China-Africa relations,” said Professor Chris Alden and Laura Barber in a new book onChina’s expanding involvement in security cooperation in Africa that they wrote and edited. Alden and Barber note that Chinese security interests on the continent are rising in response to the PRC’s massive economic interests there and Beijing’s increasingly prominent role in global affairs at a time when the United States appears to be in diplomatic retreat.  

“China’s efforts to protect its interests and nationals in Africa are linked to its long-term security policy.   China’s Military Strategy, a white paper released in 2015, acknowledged that China’s growing international presence makes it more vulnerable and requires more attention to safeguarding the security of its overseas interests.”

China-Africa scholar David Shinn

While China understandably wants to protect its people, property, and investments in Africa, one key issue remains unresolved. For over half-a-century, the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries” has guided Chinese foreign policy. For the most, China has strictly adhered to that policy, but now there are indications that once untouchable principle may be vulnerable. The 2015 anti-terror law allows for Chinese security forces to venture abroad, if necessary, to respond to threats. Similarly, the line between “peacekeeping” and “intervention” in a place like South Sudan becomes extremely murky, especially when Chinese companies sold weapons to only one side of the conflict.  

Beijing’s evolving security strategy in Africa highlights how Sino-African relations are rapidly maturing beyond the initial economic engagement that shaped ties between the two regions over the past decade. Now as the trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” trade route becomes a reality, trade and investment flows may shift away from Africa to other regions in the Middle East, Central and South Asia with Africa serving as a vital outpost to provide logistics and security along this vast new trade Chinese trade network.

Show Notes:  

About Chris Alden:

Chris Alden holds a Professorship at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), has published widely on China-Africa issues and is a research associate of the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) and Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria. He has previously taught at the University of the Witwatersrand, and held research fellowships at the University of Tokyo, the Ecole Normale Superieure and the University of Cambridge.

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