Chinese activities in Africa have expanded massively during the last decade. To be sure, most of this has been purely economic—such as bartering access to natural resources in exchange for loans.
But these money-making activities have grown so much in recent years, China is realizing it can’t keep relying on African governments to protect them—and the thousands of Chinese nationals who’ve moved to the continent.
Beijing isn’t giving up on making business deals in Africa. Far from it. It’s just that protecting those economic ties is turning into a job for the Chinese military.
David Shinn, a former American ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso—and an expert on China-Africa relations—believes Chinese investment in Africa will slow down over the next 15 years.
But there’s a catch. China’s military will grow to take a more prominent role. “The other sectors are pretty well advanced at this point, and the security connection is still relatively modest,” Shin tells War Is Boring.
“Although it’s grown a lot, particularly since the Chinese got involved in 2008 in the anti-piracy operation off Somalia,” he adds. “That has significantly increased ship visits to Africa—and not just on the east coast—but throughout Africa.”
China’s economic growth and internal stability relies on free and open trade routes. In 2008, when Somali pirates began abducting merchant ships on a weekly basis—and jacking up insurance costs—China joined the international naval mission to stop the hijackers.
Since China’s initial contribution to anti-piracy activities, the country greatly increased maritime cooperation in with Africa, holding exercises with Tanzania and providing warships to the Nigerian navy.
Officially, China abides by a strict hands-off policy when it comes to the internal affairs of other countries. And to be fair, Chinese intervention in Africa is nowhere near the scale practiced by the United States, France and some African countries.
But Beijing hasn’t followed this practice consistently. China is also becoming more assertive on the continent. It has to.
“With the growing numbers of Chinese living in Africa, they become more and more subject to negative incidents, just like Westerners,” Shinn says. “[China is] finding that they have to be somewhat more innovative in the way that they protect their own interests and nationals on the continent.”
Beijing has relied on local governments to handle security for Chinese nationals in Africa. But this approach has met its limits, Shinn explains.
When civil war broke out in Libya four years ago, Beijing had to evacuate 36,000 Chinese nationals living in the country. The long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi wasn’t willing or able to do it. And China certainly didn’t want to ask Western powers to help rescue its citizens.
“China had to do the entire evacuation on its own without any assistance whatsoever,” recalls Shinn. “That was a wake-up call for the Chinese.”
“They didn’t even know that they had 36,000 nationals in the country,” he adds. “They did very well actually pulling it all of, but they realized that they were hopelessly unprepared for this sort of thing.”
Then there’s considerable economic interests. A prime example is the young nation of South Sudan. China procures about five percent of its oil imports from the east African country.
In 2013, South Sudan collapsed into civil war. China soon embarked on its first major military intervention in Africa—deploying 700 soldiers as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
While China had far more peacekeepers deployed to Africa than any other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the South Sudan mission is the first that explicitly includes Chinese combat troops.
The soldiers were part of an unprecedented level of Chinese engagement. Beijing’s diplomats also took on the role of direct mediators between the warring parties.
On Jan. 12, the South Sudanese government and the rebels signed a Chinese-brokered cease fire. “China’s mediation of South Sudan issues is completely the responsibility and duty of a responsible power, and not because of China’s own interests,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
Which is incredulous. Africa has many conflicts, but China has majoreconomic stakes in South Sudan—and the civil war is the only one Beijing introduced combat troops.
But this isn’t to say that China’s interests and those of South Sudan are mutually exclusive. In this case, China helped bring the warring sides to an agreement that, at least for the time being, slowed the conflict.
Guns and diplomacy
The main thing is that China wants to be an economic and diplomatic superpower in Africa. But this has exposed some curious contradictions.
Case in point is one of Beijing’s most important businesses with African countries—the arms trade. China has exported massive amounts of heavy and light weapons to the continent in recent years.
“If you go back to the ’60s and ’70s, [Chinese weapons] were somewhere about three percent of all arms going into Africa,” Shinn recalls. “If you look at it up until 2010 or ’11, around 25 percent of all arms going Africa, by dollar value [are Chinese].”
“In part because Chinese military equipment is of higher quality with each passing year,” he adds. “It is also very cheap compared to Western-equivalent equipment. The Africans are enthusiastic about it.”
Chinese companies don’t really care who they sell their merchandise to. “A lot of those arms go to effectively pariah countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan,” Shinn says.
Both countries are under European Union and U.S. arms embargoes, and look to China as a no-questions-asked weapons supplier. But this market-oriented trade is beginning to bite Chinese policymakers in the back.
In South Sudan, Chinese credibility took a blow in early 2014, when media outlets began to report on a massive delivery of small arms and ammunition to government troops from Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco.
Chinese diplomats were quick to point out that these deals came years before the civil war, but they were nonetheless politically embarrassed by the apparent lack of coordination.
China is also arming South Sudanese troops with anti-aircraft missiles.
That’s still only part of it. The Chinese government is signing security-related partnerships with Egypt and is sending hundreds of military personnel to support the response to Ebola in West Africa.
“We absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrificeAfrica’s ecological environment and long-term interests,” Wang said during a recent visit to Kenya.
But when it comes to military engagement, China will soon have to make hard decisions about where Africa’s own long-term interests end, and its own interest begin. Its troop presence is only likely to grow.