Chinese Boots on African Soil
April 10, 2008
BUKAVU - Holed up behind barbed wire and sandbags, two soldiers gaze over the green landscape of Congo’s Kivu Province. The forested hills around them are silent, but they are guarding a hub of activity. Meticulously stationed military vehicles surround a few dozen troops marching around a flag planted in the middle of a dusty parade ground – a Chinese flag. “We are here to maintain order and regional stability,” explains a young lieutenant in impeccable French. Deployed in the resource-rich heart of Africa, this army unit forms only a small part of the Chinese troops that have been sent to six different African states. All of China’s troops in Africa are participants in United Nations peacekeeping operations under UN mandates – in contrast to the 1,400 or so U.S. troops deployed unilaterally in the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), part of the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror.
The question is whether China’s military posture will remain focused on peacekeeping, or, alternatively, will China opt for a unilateral security strategy that aims at protecting its interests more assertively? As China has developed into the world’s new industrial powerhouse, it is hardly surprising that it now also aspires to preserve its access to natural resources. The projection of China’s military power can be expected to become a new layer of its foreign economic policy.
Over the past few years, the People’s Republic has been confronted with a double security challenge in Africa. On the one hand, the increasing American military role in the region, manifested in CJTF-HOA, various counter-terror and training exercises, naval deployments, and the launching of the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM), has incited suspicion among Chinese scholars and decision makers. Most believe that one of Washington’s objectives is to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. “The more China’s dependence on African resources grows, the more the United States will value its military presence as a strategic lever,” a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted. At the same time, China faces serious but non-traditional challenges to its growing Africa role. Between 2004 and 2007, Chinese laborers were abducted in four different countries. In Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia oil facilities were attacked by rebel movements. In Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Congo armed movements or political opposition groups have threatened to harass Chinese enterprises.
China has addressed most of these perils with caution. Aware of Washington’s difficulties in justifying the establishment of AFRICOM, Beijing has kept a low profile. It has delivered military aid to various states, but this has been treated as just another form of cooperation and not been tied to specific risks. Neither has China’s military diplomacy kept pace with the development of China’s agile economic policy. High-level exchanges have increased, but not exponentially, and military attachés have been posted to only 15 African states. Beijing is afraid of burning its hands by taking too prominent a military role and has insisted that main security issues should be tackled through multilateral forums like the African Union.
Yet, the pressure to address the violence that is increasingly undermining China’s economic interests, as well as China’s growing distrust with respect to U.S. intentions in Africa, could lead Beijing to develop its capacity to project military power. Recently, an early warning system has been put in place, with Chinese Embassies watching closely for potential threats to Chinese interests. The timely evacuation of Chinese citizens from Chad indicates that this system is already operational. In many ways, China’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions can be considered as a school for learning how to plan and manage overseas operations. Several Chinese Army components have restructured into smaller, highly specialized units and equipped with gear for swift deployment. New platforms have enhanced China’s strategic lift capacity. In 2006, the hull of the first T-071 was laid. This landing platform dock has a reach that goes way beyond Taiwan and is aimed at providing sea-based support for launching operations on land, sending humanitarian aid, and assisting in evacuations and disaster management. These blue-water navy vessels will be supported by a new generation of large replenishment ships and could be escorted by various types of advanced frigates and destroyers. While avoiding the spotlight, China is stepping up its ability to pursue a more self-confident and independent security policy in Africa.
China’s diplomatic identity is also changing, reflecting policy decisions to move towards a more active and autonomous security strategy. It is dawning on Beijing that the comfortable cloak of frailty it has presented to the world, and its stance as just another developing country, no longer fit. In any event, African partners have never given much credence to China’s self-portrayal as an economic giant but political dwarf lacking in military power. When mayhem erupts, China nearly automatically finds itself pressured by African governments for material assistance and diplomatic support. Hence, the relevance of keeping a low military profile is diminishing. In addition, China’s self-perception is going though a transition. Chinese leaders have seized on the success of their neighborhood diplomacy in Asia that has resulted in fewer frictions and more influence. The People’s Republic has drawn added confidence from the successful launch of major new defense systems. As China sees its diplomatic leverage expanding geographically from the Strait of Formosa, via the Asian region to the rest of the developing world, its assertiveness in dealing with security issues is likely to grow as well.
Growing interests, enhanced military capability, and diplomatic confidence suggest that the People’s Republic will soon abandon the path of low profile engagement. Nonetheless, the expansion of China’s military presence in Africa will be constrained by several factors. China’s maritime supply lines are extremely long and pass through seas where other navies rule the waves. Naval deployment in the Indian Ocean would certainly agitate India, and hence become an additional cause of uncertainty rather than a guarantee of safe supply lines. In the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea, the U.S. Navy is dominant, and China will have little interest in challenging that dominance, which offers a measure of security to all. Indeed, whatever the military presence that China is willing to build up might be, it will not contribute to China’s long-term security interests without the cooperation of key players like the United States or India. Another consideration is that China’s economic interests are scattered all over the African continent. China’s economic ventures and investments are much more diverse than these of other external powers and are not restricted to defined spheres of influence. If China were to try to deal unilaterally with the security challenges it faces in Africa, the result would be a damaging overstretch.
These realities facing China should reassure the United States and Europe that China will not resort to a Cold War-like strategy in Africa, marked by competition in arms supplies and proxy wars. As the costs and risks of a unilateral military strategy remain too high, Beijing will have a strong interest in joining forces with both African and external actors to promote peace and stability. Washington and Brussels should gradually include a broader security agenda in their dialogues with China on Africa that goes beyond Darfur. Joint efforts need to be made to strengthen the African Union’s capacity to prevent and to manage violent conflicts. In the past years, China has built state-of-the-art training centers in Langfang and Beijing to prepare police officers and soldiers for overseas missions. Their advanced training programs form an opportunity for Western specialists to share their expertise and to acquaint Chinese troops with lessons learned in past operations. Departing from common interests, a consensus has to be built on important cross-cutting issues like arms trade, good governance, and transparency in extractive industries. Moreover, collaboration in Africa will require recognition on China’s part that it must take a constructive position with regard to security challenges elsewhere, including the cross-Strait relations and problem states like Myanmar, Iran and North Korea. Both in China and in the west, decision makers should be aware that interests do not necessarily have to lead to collision, but that pragmatic cooperation is an option too.
Jonathan Holslag is head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS) and specializes in Sino-African relations. This article draws from a recent paper available at www.vub.ac.be/biccs/publications.htm.
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