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.