China’s growing security activism in Africa

This is the 102nd article in the series The China Chronicles.

Read the articles here.


China’s engagement with African countries is ambitious and complex. The increasingly comprehensive engagement involves many different agenda, sectors, and players. It is a remarkable exercise in narrative framing. Notwithstanding the suspicion and cynicism centring on China’s role and engagement, it is difficult to overlook China’s substantial influence in the continent and its growing activism in African security. From provision of arms and deployment in peacekeeping missions, to conflict mediation and participation in military training, the scope of Chinese involvement in Africa has increased manifold. Moreover, China is also deftly using counter-piracy measures and participation in the peacekeeping missions to cast itself as a responsible power and advance its broader strategic interests in sub-Saharan Africa.

This year, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of China’s participation in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Over this period, Chinese armed forces have sent over 40,000 service members to 25 UN Peacekeeping missions with the majority of these being deployed in African countries. China is now the second-largest contributor to both peacekeeping assessment and UN membership fees. For the most part, Chinese personnel in Africa have been in small contingents executing unarmed roles such as medical and engineering support, but now they are playing a more active role in infantry operations, policing, mediation, and UN mandates to protect civilians.

Through these peacekeeping missions, China wants to burnish its credential as a humanitarian champion. Beijing wants to couch its security engagement as part of endeavour to protect its overseas interests and provide regional public goods in sub-Saharan Africa. In keeping with this objective, China recently released a trailer for The Blue Defensive Line, a documentary film that features a Chinese peacekeeping infantry battalion protecting local refugee camps in war-torn South Sudan. The trailer presents a vivid account of the efforts and sacrifices made by Chinese ‘blue helmets’ to safeguard peace and development.

More tellingly, the trailer depicts how Chinese peacekeepers protect and interact with African locals. Such visual representations of its benevolent role evoke strong empathy and resonate intimately with local Africans’ popular imagination. At every possible instance, China is eager to advertise even its smallest achievements. This is one such example of China’s development narrative in Africa that diverges from those of its Western counterparts. China knows all too well the power of selling the story of its developmental journey – one of economic progress from a poor to a rich country — to the African countries.

China’s aid, massive sums of development finance, and steady increase of military presence has succeeded in filling a void left by Western countries, at a time when the West is mulling to reduce its force posture in Africa.

Drivers of Chinese security activism in Africa

China’s growing security activism in Africa is driven by several considerations. Its security interest in the continent often aligns closely with those of its African counterparts. China asserts that it stands to benefit from a stable, secure, and peaceful Africa. By helping African states create an environment conducive for peace and stability, Beijing wants to ensure continuous access to the growing African market. African countries too welcome China’s growing security engagement in the continent since this provides numerous opportunities to strengthen African capacity building efforts as a way of ending chronic cycles of violence, insecurity, and instability. China’s rising role in African security undergirds its economic statecraft and commercial interests, helps professionalise its military, improve Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) operational readiness and military access, safeguard its massive investments, and ensure the safety of Chinese citizens in the African continent. In addition, China is also trying to rebalance its ties with African countries away from purely commercial exchanges. Beijing wants to boost its international credibility and standing by consolidating its image as a responsible developing great power vis-à-vis its African partners and the international community.

Overall, China’s security engagement in Africa is inextricably connected to its other goals such as economic growth, expanding its logistics footprint, and increasing its political influence in multilateral forums, especially in the United Nations (UN) which has African states constituting one-fourth of the total membership.

Evolving security engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa

China is both a historical and new security partner in sub-Saharan Africa. Beijing was the primary source of aid for Tanzanian military in 1960s and had earlier supported many of the region’s ruling parties during their liberation struggles in the 1970s, including ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and FRELIMO in Mozambique. In recent years, China’s security involvement has increased both quantitatively and qualitatively as it has ramped up its bilateral security partnerships. Chinese private sector has won a lot of security contracts. China funded a $30 million training centre for Tanzania’s military at Mapinga, apart from delivering medical protective gear to the South African National Defense Force to assist in the COVID-19 response.

As of February 2020, China has more than 2,000 soldiers and staff deployed to UN Peacekeeping Missions in DRC, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. China is also an ardent advocate and supporter of African Union’s peace and security architecture. At the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China pledged $100 million military assistance to support the establishment of African Standby Force and rapid-response force. The PLA is also rapidly expanding its attaché representation in African countries. According to Judd Devermont, Director of Africa Program at CSIS, the PLA has attaché representation in one-third of African nations, and 75 percent of these countries have attachés in China.

On the naval side too, apart from goodwill ship visits and provision of humanitarian assistance, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has also deployed the “Peace Ark” hospital ship, providing free medical assistance and healthcare to Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti and Seychelles. The selective deployment to these strategically located countries is indicative of China’s attempts to enhance its soft power and further its regional geopolitical objectives in countries associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Chinese arms and defense equipment have also penetrated the African states in a big way. Data compiled by SIPRI shows that China was the second largest supplier of arms to sub-Saharan Africa accounting for 19 per cent of the region’ imports over the period from 2015-2019. Russia accounted for 36 per cent of arms imports by states in the subregion, and France for 7.6 per cent (See Table).

Region Year Top Supplier Top Recipient Countries
North Africa 2014-2018

Russia (49%)

USA (15%)

China (10%)

France (7.8%)

Germany (7.7%)

Algeria (largest arms importer – received 66% from Russia, 13% from China, 10% from Germany

Morocco-second largest importer (received 62% from USA, 36% from France)

2015-2019

Russia (67%)

China (13%)

Germany (11%)

Algeria (alone accounted for 79% of North African arms imports)
Sub-Saharan Africa 2014-2018

Russia (28%)

China (24%)

Ukraine (8.3%)

USA (7.1%)

France (6.1%)

Nigeria (largest arms importer – received 35% from Russia, 21% from China, and 15% from USA)
2015-2019

Russia (36%)

China (19%)

France (7.6%)

Angola

Nigeria

Sudan

Senegal

Zambia

Source: SIPRI, Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018, 2019

Although China has mostly exported small and light weapons to African countries until now,  its arms manufacturers have started to sell more advanced and sophisticated weapon systems, including the CH-3 unmanned ariel vehicle and battle tank to support Nigerian operations against Boko Haram. These purchases of defense equipment and military hardware are lucrative for African countries due to their easy availability and low-cost.

China also tactically uses its training programs to cultivate current and future African security leaders and creates connections and network of linkages that will be profitable for Chinese companies in the future. Back in 2018, China invited 50 African countries and the African Union to participate in the inaugural China-Africa Defense and Security Forum which marked a new, more formal and comprehensive level of dialogue. Such forums provide a platform for Chinese and African security representatives to conduct sustained discussion and identify opportunities to enhance collaboration in the defence and security domain.

Often, Chinese security engagement in African countries overlaps with the rolling of trade and investment initiatives. For example, as soon as the trailer for The Blue Defensive Line was released, China announced a new Africa-focused Free Trade Area Zone in Hunan province. Already, the city of Changsha has hosted a China-Africa trade expo and is moving forward on cocoa trading and boosting renminbi internalization on the African continent. These parallel developments might simply be a coincidence but also point towards an increasing overlap between different sectors. What China offers is a complete package that blends arms sales, troop training, anti-piracy drills, medical assistance, along with trade and investment deals, and various other programs.

China’s intertwined security and economic interests provide it with significant leverage and advantage over Western counterparts in Africa. What is apparent is that there is no widespread concern over increasing Chinese security engagements in Africa. This possibly implies that a serious scrutiny of growing Chinese security interests in African countries and the implications there of has not arisen yet.

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