With growing Chinese security engagements in Africa, Sino-African relations are at a critical juncture. This is not necessarily because of the ignited international attention on what China does in Africa, but rather because of the nature of — and scintillating mutuality in — the expanding China-Africa relationships. For instance, recently China has shown unprecedented willingness and (to some extent) readiness to put its shoulder to the wheel in Africa’s efforts to deal with cycles of insecurity and instability. Likewise, aiming for an “integrated, prosperous, and peaceful [Africa],” the continent — under the aegis of the African Union (AU) — has been striving to develop better strategies in working with external partners to achieve peace and stability. It is in that regard that peace and security have increasingly gained prominence in China-Africa engagements, ranging from growing multilateral cooperation on security challenges facing Africa to nascent (sub)regional initiatives to long-held bilateral partnerships with many African countries.
In other words, although discussions on the growing China-Africa security engagements often focus more on Beijing’s plans for the continent and less on Africa’s plans for itself, the reality is that Sino-African security relations are more symbiotic and point to a politics of coincidentally converging interests: China stands to benefit from a stable, secure, and peaceful Africa while the continent strives to eradicate insecurity and instability for its own prosperity and development. This is a crucial fact that China has come to realize, at least, in recent years, as illustrated by its broadening interest in Africa’s peace and security.
To be sure, however, no single factor fully explains the paradigm shift in China’s security relations with Africa. But the shift aims to help protect and promote Beijing’s “hard” and “soft” national interests in the continent. First, ensuring continuous access to the continent’s vast resources certainly plays a significant role in China’s security thinking — though this factor is usually overemphasized to the extent that other equally important calculations are overlooked altogether. Second, accessing the growing African market — thanks to a booming population and expanding middle class — for trade and investments and firmly consolidating that position is another calculation critical to Beijing’s dealings with the continent. Third, China is also concerned with the protection of its economic investments as well as the safety of its surging number of citizens in Africa. For China, the way to securing these “hard” and broader Chinese interests is by directly helping Africa create an environment conducive to peace and stability; hence, Beijing’s calls and support for “African solutions to African security problems.”
Moreover, China’s security engagements in Africa also serve its “soft” (indirect) national interests. By constantly reminding whoever wants to listen that China is the largest developing nation and Africa has the largest number of developing countries, Beijing effectively positions itself as the voice of the developing world. Its status as a veto power in the UN Security Council seals that positioning. Therefore, actively getting involved in Africa’s efforts to improve its security landscape effectively consolidates China’s carefully tailored image of a “responsible developing great power” vis-à-vis its African partners and the international community. Furthermore, although the thorny issue of international recognition of Taiwan (the “One China” policy) is becoming less significant in China-Africa relations (Swaziland/eSwatini is the only country in Africa to still maintains diplomatic ties with Taipei), the continent takes a strategic position in Beijing’s strategic efforts to “democratize” the international system and foster “south-south cooperation.” Thus, China’s security involvement in Africa, especially through peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions, should be seen as exemplifying solidarity and multilateral cooperation between developing countries.
But the growing activism of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in these missions also helps China achieve two other strategic objectives. Peace missions in Africa (and elsewhere) provide the PLA with much-needed operational experience through non-war military activities. They also provide China with a perfect opportunity to showcase its peaceful rise and its willingness to shoulder its international responsibilities. In that regard, Africa is China’s testing ground, a laboratory for Beijing to experiment with its security leadership, the results of which could help quell narratives on “the China threat.”
To African countries, security relations with China provide unprecedented opportunities to strengthen their capacity-building efforts as a way of ending the recurring cycles of violence and insecurity. Likewise, for many African countries, Chinese presence in the continent in general and its security engagement in particular presents them with an alternative approach, a different way of doing “security,” since like China, many African countries recognize that security challenges facing them usually stem from (and are often reinforced by) poverty, discrimination, and accumulated grievances. Little wonder that, except for the controversial Chinese arms sales to some African countries, Beijing’s expanding security engagement in Africa has been a welcomed and long-overdue development, suggesting that China’s security interests in the continent often align pretty closely with those of its African counterparts.
This also explains the increasing institutionalization of Sino-African security relations in recent years. For instance, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) established the China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security in 2012 to mark a turning point in China-Africa relationship, with security issues gaining prominence. Indeed, the Partnership for Peace and Security, designed to provide financial assistance, capacity building, and other forms of institutionalized support to Africa’s security regime, also led to the establishment of a regular and consultative China-Africa Peace and Security Forum (in addition to FOCAC), the first of which took place in Beijing in July of this year.
Such frameworks aim to increase contact and foster dialogues to “create synergy in thinking and action between the two sides” and strengthen policy alignment in China-Africa security relations. Thus, to fail to fully account for this mutual interest, as most discussions on China’s security engagements in Africa do, is to miss the fact that what African countries really need is a stable and secure environment to achieve their long-overdue goals of prosperity. China, for the most part, has been offering to contribute to that end in the pursuit of its own national interests. In a nutshell, what is remarkable about the growing Sino-African security relations is that they speak not of the heightened trepidation about China in Africa, but more of a symbiotic partnership that points to a politics of double coincidence of wants.
Abdou Rahim Lema is a Yenching Scholar of Peking University, with a particular interest in China-Africa security and development relations.