UN Peace Keeping soldiers from China in Liberia
8 min read

China’s growing peace and security role in Africa

Views from West Africa, implications for Europe

The discussion of Sino-African relations continues to be dominated by China’s economic activities and aspirations. However, the People's Republic has been working for more than a decade to establish itself as a serious actor in security policy on the African continent and has already made significant progress. All the indications are that China, with its security ambitions, is pursuing a systematic and holistic continent-wide approach, including arms supplies and military diplomacy, as well as deployment in peacekeeping missions and participation in military training.

This development is attracting considerable attention among analysts and policymakers but there remains limited primary data shedding light on this aspect of Sino-African relations.

Against this background, the new report “China’s growing peace and security role in Africa: views from West Africa, implications for Europe” realized by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the Mercator Institute for China Studies makes important contributions: Based on extensive fieldwork, the author, Tom Bayes, outlines China’s growing security activities in Africa, their background and objectives, perceptions among West African stakeholders and implications for Europe.

The report was presented in a web seminar on July 16, 2020, by Tom Bayes and discussed with Markus Koob (Member of the Bundestag), Thomas Schiller (Head of the KAS regional program Sahel) and Anna Wasserfall (KAS desk officer for West Afrika/Security).

A recording of the event can also be watched here

You can read the Executive Summary below and download a PDF version of the report here.

Executive Summary

In step with its emergence as a global security actor, China is deepening its peace and security role in Africa, from arms provision and peacekeeping, to conflict mediation and its first overseas military base, located in Djibouti. This study examines China’s growing role through the case of West Africa, based on over 60 interviews with security practitioners and other stakeholders in eight West African states.

In seeking a greater role in African security, Beijing is responding to the growing need to protect its burgeoning economic interests and over one million citizens on the continent. But more political motives are also central. Beijing is hoping to deepen its relations with African nations, rebalancing them away from purely commercial exchanges. It is also looking to demonstrate that China is a ‘Responsible Great Power’, boosting its international credibility and standing. China’s frequently advertised emergence as the second largest financial contributor to UNPKOs and largest troop contributor of the Security Council’s P5 adds to its political capital at the UN, which its diplomats are looking to cash in for reshaped international norms and political outcomes in line with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) preferences. Meanwhile, greater participation in African security aids the military modernisation that is an important element of the CCP’s ‘Centenary Goals’.

China’s leaders and diplomats emphasise that its African security role is focused on limited, multilateral intervention and building African capacity to pursue ‘African solutions to African problems’.

Hardware is one dimension of this capacity building. China has become the second largest arms supplier to Africa. Small arms and light weapons are central but China increasingly exports larger, more sophisticated systems, including tanks, aircraft, and combat drones – all at highly competitive prices. Chinese arms provision is not purely commercial; Beijing has made numerous donations of lethal and non-lethal military equipment to its West African partners. However, according to African military interviewees, recurring quality problems limit the potential for Chinato reliably enhance African militaries’ capabilities.

Beijing is also looking to develop African militaries’ ‘software’ through training exchanges. China’s activities in this area differ notably from Africa’s other international partners, including Europe and the US. Beijing focuses heavily on a large and growing military scholarship programme for African officers to study in China. In contrast, although China has made first steps into these areas, joint-exercises and on-the-ground training for enlisted ranks remain more marginal, suggesting the priority is influence building among Africa’s future military commanders.

While China remains averse to direct military intervention in Africa, it has been stepping up its indirect, multilateral intervention through UNPKOs. In West Africa, China has steadily expanded the number and types of personnel it contributes to UNPKOs, from military observers (Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire), to medics, engineers and police (Liberia), and finally armed infantry in the ongoing MINUSMA mission in Mali. Though it has suffered casualties, China’s contribution to MINUSMA is perceived by interviewees in Mali as principally symbolic, marking a new willingness to deploy combat troops (demonstrated more strongly in South Sudan, where Chinese commercial interests are considerable). Chinese peacekeeping experts and practitioners call for Beijing to leverage its UNPKO influence to promote a ‘Chinese approach’ to peacekeeping that prioritises regime stability and economic development, and eschews interventionism and democratisation activities within missions.

For West African interviewees, China’s security role is clearly expanding – but remains fundamentally limited. Chinese weapons are appreciated as economical, but technical failings have caused considerable frustration. China’s military education programme is large and well received, though West African officers stressed Beijing was just one among many such partners, and not the most prestigious. Enthusiasm for other forms of training (such as joint exercises and in-country combat training) is limited by doubts that the PLA has relevant experience and expertise to share, most importantly in the priority area of counter terrorism. Crucially, Beijing’s resistance to interventionism and reticence to put boots on the ground – unlike other partners – limits China’s relevance as a leading security partner. Interviewees nonetheless expect China’s security role to continue to grow, as a further element of Beijing’s deepening influence in the subregion.

For European stakeholders, China’s growing African security role presages the emergence of an influential new security actor in a region of strategic importance. Positively, this may point to Beijing making substantive contributions to African security commensurate with its resources and influence. However, Beijing’s privileging of unilateral activities that raise its own profile as a security actor suggest that it is in deepened Chinese political influence that the effects will most keenly be felt, both in Africa and at the UN.

Policy Recommendations

  • Strengthen messaging: China’s growing security role in West Africa does not demand restructuring or expansion of European actors’ own security activities in the subregion; at least in aggregate, these still far exceed Beijing’s contributions, and any competitive dynamic with China is likely to be counterproductive. Nonetheless, effective coordination and unified messaging is required to emphasise the value of Europe’s contributions. Public and diplomatic messaging should emphasise European actors’ building of West African capacity, as well as its defence of values shared with much of the subregion.
  • Maintain European influence in UNPKOs: European members of the UN, especially of the UNSC, should be attentive to Beijing’s efforts to leverage its expanding contributions to African security and UNPKOs for political advantage. China’s growing contribution to UNPKOs should be welcomed. However, European members should be vigilant of attempts to weaken UN peacekeeping norms. This is best supported by a sustained, substantive European contribution to UNPKOs, both through financing and provision of high-end capabilities to individual missions.
  • Seek exchange backed by effective internal coordination: Given China’s growing activism on African security and its substantial influence on the continent, European stakeholders must continue to seek exchange of views with China on African political and security affairs. Summitry such as the postponed 2020 EU-China summit in Leipzig is an important opportunity for high-level exchanges – but opportunities for ongoing, working-level exchanges must be sought and exploited, including within individual capitals, at the AU in Addis Ababa, and at the UN in New York. The aim of such exchanges should be to enhance mutual comprehension and trust to enable better global coordination in response to African security crises as they emerge. Crucially, this must be buttressed by effective European coordination and information-sharing on China’s role in Africa by China- and Africa-facing teams within EU and member state services and ministries.
  • Take high-level strategic decisions: Any move to actively deepen Sino-European cooperation on African security on the ground, especially in more military dimensions, should be subject to high-level European strategic decisions, weighing the risks and benefits of such cooperation, in the context of the broader picture of Europe-China relations; China’s role and goals in Africa; and China’s developing global behaviour. Preparations for the postponed Leipzig Summit, if and when it or a similar format takes place, are an opportunity for such reflection.
  • Devise European guidelines for engagement with the PLA: While there are opportunities for more active security exchange and cooperation (including exchanges in the context of co-deployment in UNPKOs, notably MINUSMA; pre-deployment peacekeeping training; and joint exercises relating to HADR, NEOs, and anti-piracy, notably in the Gulf of Guinea), military cooperation should not be pursued for its own sake or without reference to risks and costs. China has already demonstrated its interest in such exchanges with European militaries – and some forms of joint training have already taken place. However, the decision to engage in these exchanges with the PLA must account for the possible risks to European values and interests, and those of Europe’s likeminded partners in Africa and East Asia. European stakeholders, most likely coordinated by the EU Military Staff, should therefore urgently devise a code of European guidelines for engagement with the PL A, delineating acceptable exchanges – and those that are counterproductive. Though optional (given member state sovereignty in such matters), these guidelines would calibrate a coordinated level of engagement with the PLA acceptable to European interests and values.
  • Urge China to uphold transparency and international norms: China can make positive, substantive contributions to African security and these should be welcomed. However, European stakeholders should encourage China to do this in a transparent manner, in multilateral coordination with African stakeholders and the international community. China should be strongly encouraged to participate in multilateral formats such as the G7++ FOGG. China should also be encouraged to deploy its existing strengths by providing financing and support to the G5 Sahel’s infrastructure development activities. Such support would not be incompatible with Beijing’s preference for activities that raise its own visibility but must be conducted in line with international, multilateral norms.
  • Strengthen coordination with African partners: It will remain imperative to work in close coordination with African partners, in ways that emphasise African agency and autonomy of action. The EU’s 2020 Comprehensive Strategy with Africa should be fully leveraged to strengthen Europe’s role as a leading partner in Africa’s peace and security.

You can download a PDF version of the report here.


Media Contact

The experts of the Mercator Institute for China Studies are available to comment on current news, as panelists or as op-ed authors.

Get in touch