China is deepening its security relations with Africa as a part of its bigger strategy to secure a stronger foothold on the African continent. While the purpose behind these engagements is to mainly protect its economic interests in the region, China also wants to gain a strategic sphere of influence in Africa for a larger role in the Continent. Simultaneously, by increasing political and economic influence on the Continent, China aims to galvanize support of African countries at multilateral forums where it seeks to attain more prominent positions as well as their votes when needed.
The military engagements of China in Africa received a major boost after President Xi Jinping announced severalnew measures at the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation in 2018. One of these was establishing the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum as platform for conducting exchanges in the military segment which also aims tobuild peacekeeping capacity for Africa, expand military personnel training and overall strengthen the defenseengagements with African countries. During the summit, China also earmarked a budget for military assistance ofUS$ 100 million to the African Standby Force (ASF) and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) over a period of five years.
Recently, Beijing has stepped up its cooperation with the African Union (AU), which comprises of 55 member-states of Africa. With a two-pronged approach to African security issues, China is not only defending its own economic and security interests but also wants to be seen as a credible partner in AU’s peace and other militarysupport programs. China is one of the largest contributors financially and militarily to the AU and its security system having created a dedicated China-Africa Peace and Security Fund for enhancing cooperation in peace, security, peacekeeping, and internal security, offering security assistance programs all over the continent with the AU. Moreover, China is channelizing funds from UN Peace and Development Trust Fund (of about US$ 200 million budget) to peace and development initiatives in Africa. In 2018, China also provided US$ 25 million for military equipment to AU’s logistics base in Yaoundé, Cameroon, US$ 20 million military assistance to Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The subsequent year, China provided US$ 45 million to G5-Sahel Joint Force and further, China will be providing military assistance worth US$ 20 million annually to AU to enhance its capacity to rapidly respond during crisis times.
Apart for these, China is also involved in engaging African countries bilaterally through joint drills, military training, military infrastructure building and multilaterally through China-African Forum on security issues. Military training programs and exchanges have become a core part of these relations and are held on a regular basis with African counterparts. For instance, in 2019, young military officers from 45 African countries toured the China’s defense industry. The week-long tour took the officers to military academies and People’s Liberation Army Units stationed around Beijing. About 2000 African students attend China’s military academies every year where they are exposed to the Chinese model on party-army relations. About 300 foreign officers are admitted annually to the upper-tier places like the National Defense University and National University of Defense Technology, where African officers constitute slightly less than 60%.
These military trainings, short-term courses and workshops of African military officers help China cultivate ties with current and future African security leaders, who in Africa often go to also lead the country. These investments have, in the past, paid off for the Chinese government, for example, former Congolese President Joseph Kabila received training from the PLA National Defense University before ascending to power in 2001. Congo is a very important source of rare earths globally and especially for China. The training also goes to highlight the Chinese model of “capitalism without democracy” which Xi Jinping and his followers are very proud of. For Africa, where democracies are often weak, this is akin to encouraging new military leaders to pursue power and establish similar models.
These activities create informal networks between Chinese and African military cadets and officers which further help China in seeking support on sensitive issues.These African cadets, often influential in their own countries, become informal ambassadors for China’s policies.
China is also extensively involved with UN Peacekeeping Missions in Africa by deploying its peacekeepers in five out of seven UN Peacekeeping Missions. The involvement of China in peacekeeping operations has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively. Participation has been ramped up with a greater number of personnel being committed and an increase in presence in new countries. Of the five UNSC permanent members, China has become the largest troop contributor and second largest financier of UN Peacekeeping operations. It has also been noted that some of the major peacekeeping contributions have happened where China has significant economic interests.
Addressing peace and security issues in Africa is vastly beneficial for China in securing its economic interests in the region, with the two sides to share intelligence, technologies, and experiences to improve African countries’ ability to safeguard the security of projects such as railways and industrial parks which are mostly a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Strengthening defense engagement with African countries thus compliments existing Chinese ventures on the continent.
The Chinese efforts to enhance the AU’s military intervention capacity and peace keeping, through the PLA include assistance for military, police and to counter terrorism activities. This include technology provision for suppressing domestic dissent as well as post conflict governance initiatives. In this context China is focusing on countries in the Sahel region, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa. China’s current peace and security activities in Africa, therefore, are a departure from its former policy of non-interference. This would pave way for a Chinese bid to grab projects aimed at socio-economic reconstruction, in which China’s vast military experience will play a prominent role.
With the rising influence of the Quad and its interferencein the South China seas and the Pacific, China’s efforts will only increase in Africa, with a specific focus on the East. As it is threatened in its backyard, it will try and make inroads in the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, as its only presence in the Indian Ocean is in Djibouti. The increasing Chinese influence in Africa is often synergetic to a strong Turkish role and criminal links to the Iran backed Hezbollah and consolidation of the China-Turkey-Pakistan-Iran and Qatar alliance will only increase the threat in this region to democracy. The fall of Kabul has just started changing the global geopolitical dynamic. Before long we will see its unfortunate effects in Africa.