China is redrawing the global security map beyond the Asia-Pacific. This article, the third in a four-part series, examines China’s continental ambitions in Africa and their impact on militarisation, infrastructure, technology, and governance models.
Part one of the series focused on the strategic logic of China’s western expansion, the growth of security ties with Bangladesh, and new China-brokered integration platforms linking Bangladesh with Southeast Asia. Part two turned to the impact of Beijing’s ‘march West’ strategy on the regional security architecture in Pakistan and Central Asia.
Concerns of a New Cold War
Africa is geographically, culturally, and politically divided into numerous sub-regions. The idea of an ‘African’ region can be challenging to establish beyond abstract ideas of shared post-colonial experience. Within the structures and concepts of international strategy, however, Africa is treated as a coherent object of relationship-building. China’s security strategy is no exception.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), inaugurated in 2006, and China-Africa Defence and Security Forum, first hosted in Beijing in 2019, both take a continental approach to security that mimics the logic of the region’s dominant intergovernmental organisation, the African Union (AU).
China’s profile in Africa has grown steadily with time. Support for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping includes a standby force totalling 8,000 personnel as well as permanent police squads. According to June 2019 data, roughly 2,000 personnel actively serve in UN peacekeeping missions in DR Congo, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and Western Sahara.
A new military base adjacent to the Port of Doraleh, Djibouti was officially opened in August 2017, extending the reach of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces beyond UN command. Announced missions undertaken by Djibouti-stationed PLA forces include counterpiracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peacekeeping; also, the base appears capable of supporting other deterrence operations and holding strategic economic corridors. Construction on a new pier capable of berthing at least four ships began in June 2018.
Beijing’s increased military presence in Africa has elicited observations that a new cold war may be developing on the continent as well. United States concerns over the growing influence financial and political influence of both China and Russia led in early 2019 to the drafting of a “New Africa Strategy” by security advisers.
Rumours also persist that China is constructing new bases and military installations in other African countries. In 2018, Spotlight Zimbabwe reported that China was installing HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in the country, identical to those deployed on Woody Island in the South China Sea. In 2019, Spotlight Zimbabwe published further unconfirmed details concerning the deployment of PLA special forces and construction of an underground military base to protect mines and other economic interests.
The expanding BeiDou Navigation Satellite (BDS) system increasingly covers Africa through the China-Arab States BDS/GNNS Centre, established in Tunis in 2018, as well as bilateral cooperation mechanisms such as technical assistance and training. From the perspective of China’s leaders and foreign affairs commentators, building a military presence and “external security system” is an essential extension of national goals to project power globally, particularly in those regions where PRC citizens work and live.
According to Brookings, China’s investment-, trade-, and culture-based soft power have already enhanced soft power in North Africa, while its policy of noninterference in other countries’ affairs has so far enhanced local perceptions that China’s power, as opposed to that of the U.S., is predominantly non-coercive.
However, a December 2019 Pew Research poll on perceptions of China in Africa and MENA shows that opinion can vary widely by country depending on national wealth, while views of China’s economic growth as beneficial are also mixed with suspicion toward investment and military growth.
China’s African Interests
China’s interests in Africa are varied but primarily focused on resources. Africa is vital to China’s oil supply. After Russia and Saudia Arabia, Angola is the third-largest source of imported crude, with Congo the twelfth-largest. Libya (first), and Congo (fourth) are among China’s fastest-growing suppliers. The Sub-Saharan region is among those with the highest likelihood of undiscovered resources in the world.
Africa also figures into China’s plans to feed its population by buying and leasing agricultural land in developing nations. Considerable confusion exists surrounding the scale and location of land acquisition, as well as its efficacy in supplying domestic markets. China’s impact on African agriculture can be most clearly seen in the establishment, by 2016, of a network of twenty three Chinese Agricultural Technology Development Centres run by Chinese companies across the continent. Other investment and informal migrant labour also contribute to exports, as well as to feeding China’s growing diasporic population within Africa.
China’s One Belt, One Road (BRI) strategy treats Africa as a critical market for overseas investment and technology. Whereas the US and the European Union are investment leaders, China is the continent’s trade leader.
The estimated value of China’s African investments and construction contracts in the Sub-Saharan region between 2005 and 2019 is approximately $300 billion USD, with another $190 billion flowing into North Africa and the Arab Middle East.
Also, China has become Sub-Saharan Africa’s top supplier of weapons. Telecommunications and e-commerce represent additional frontiers for economic expansion, with national champion Huawei offering new ICT training in Uganda and South Africa.
Advancing China’s Pan-African Security Concept
China’s comprehensive, pan-African security approach corresponds to the geographic diversity of its interests. Multilateral engagement with Africa across multiple levels, including security deals, centres on FOCAC and related mechanisms, such as the China-Africa Joint Business Council, China-Africa Business Council, and successive action plans. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, pan-African security commitments have formally increased through the China-Africa Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a “systematic, pan-African approach to security on the continent” through which China exports military and technical expertise as a partner to the AU.
In 2015, Xi announced that $100 million in aid would be transferred to the AU over 5 years; a 2017 update to this announcement indicated that the funding would be used for the development of an African Standby Force and rapid-response force.
Public statements by official representatives emphasise China’s contributions to the peacekeeping mission of the UN and the development of African force capacity.
Other evidence suggests a far more expansive concept of security. The PLA’s Djibouti base has provided opportunities for live-fire exercises and has become a centre for joint activities with non-African countries. PLA Navy anti-piracy escort mission has visited several African Ports.
The inaugural China-Africa Defence and Security Forum, held in mid-2018, has spurred predictions that China seeks to build a new regional security platform, as well as boost arms sales. Superficially, such developments signal militarisation and the possibility of future Chinese engagement in African conflicts.
However, their immediate impact may be minimised due to the low quality of equipment and training that China provides, which still falls short of African countries’ military needs.
The FOCAC Beijing Action Plan (2019-2021), also announced in 2018, includes numerous security-related provisions, including use of ICT and China-built “smart cities,” counter-terrorism, policing, food security, maritime security, cybersecurity, energy security, and “operationalization of the African Peace and Security Architecture” in areas ranging from governance to fighting piracy. China has also pledged support for anti-corruption training, intelligence sharing, and police cooperation.
The effect of these efforts is to position China as a pan-African security provider at both the continental and national levels, with strong political and commercial interests underpinning a growing network of military relationships. The PRC government’s official spokespeople refer to strengthening the “China-Africa comprehensive strategic partnership” as a key goal of China’s relations with African States, a phrase that accompanied the launching of the Ministry of Defence hosted China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in July 2019.
Representatives of 50 African countries and the African Union attended the event, which focused on potential areas of cooperation such as bilateral peace and security, regional maritime security, and militaries as peacekeepers.
China’s Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, was reportedly busy on the sidelines meeting with counterparts from African countries according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) news outlet Xinhua. Official CCP sources have also portrayed African leaders as accepting of China’s “active role” as a participant in peace and stability operations in the Horn of Africa region.
From Strategic Interests to Strategic Hub
China’s impact on Africa’s security architecture goes beyond military and peacekeeping dimensions. China Merchants Port Holdings has seen considerable growth in Lomé Container Terminal operations in Togo; the company is also in negotiations to invest in a new port project in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
China Communications Construction Company berth construction in Kenya’s Lamu Port represents another instance of transportation integration. Port investments reflect China’s demonstrable potential for establishing linkages between infrastructure and force mobility, including in West Africa.
In Cameroon, China has cancelled approximately $80 million USD in debt as a goodwill gesture, further solidifying relations with a country that represents a critical foothold around the strategically important Gulf of Guinea. Senegal, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso have all increased ties with China in recent years. Connecting these disparate investment projects would impact regional geopolitics by creating overland links between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, or Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean.
West Africa increasingly figures into China’s strategic vision marks a departure from more traditional PLA peacekeeping in the Horn of Africa to the east.
Construction projects in Cameroon include roads, dams, hydroelectric facilities, and expansion of the Kribi deepwater port. China engages in defence cooperation and training with Equatorial Guinea on a bilateral basis. Senegal, currently co-chair of FOCAC, support China “One Belt, One Road” initiative, while China has pledged support in the areas of counter-terrorism and social stability.
China’s grand strategy toward Africa, however, remains consistently pan-African. Libya is among the top destinations of China’s African investments. Digital connections between China and the Arab world are being expanded to connect with the African continent. China has established a Beidou navigation satellite system centre in Tunisia meant to foster cooperation with both the Arab and African Middle East.
In South Africa, China has become an astronomy partner in agreements linked to the Square Kilometre Array. The militarisation of these widespread partnerships is another notable facet of China’s engagement.
Of 46 Sub-Saharan African ports with financial, construction, or operational involvement by Chinese entities, at least six were visited by Chinese military vessels or are dual-use military-civil ports. Seven ports operated by Chinese entities are located on Africa’s western coast, raising the potential for military power projection into the Atlantic Ocean.
China’s Regime Security Paradigm
The militarisation of the South China Sea has driven analysts to conclude that the fullest expression of China’s global influence will be a network of military bases linking Hainan with Djibouti as part of a seamless whole. From this perspective, Africa represents the western edge of a continuous process of expansion.
Djibouti aside, however, militarisation has not yet arrived, and a multipolar struggle between China, Europe, the United States, and now Russia for security partnerships on the continent continues.
Because Africa, unlike Southeast Asia, is more of a distant laboratory for China’s great power ambitions rather than a true litmus test, China-Africa security relations have proceeded according to a “regime security” paradigm by which China wins access to resources and investment fields in exchange for support for governance by African parties and leaders. This long-term support plan undoubtedly has a military dimension. China’s military leaders have expressed ambitious plans to become providers of world peace and stability in concert with Russia.
In the more immediate term, China’s regime-centred security focus in Africa is buttressed by mechanisms of authoritarian state capacity building. The China International Press Communication Center (CIPCC) provides training for African journalists which is based on China’s own domestic opinion guidance experience. Chinese ICT champion Huawei’s Africa programs, coupled with Beidou satellite cooperation, offer governments the option of increased control over their information and control environments. While more traditional mediation efforts spearheaded by China have largely failed, China is instead exporting political technologies and advising derived from Xi Jinping’s ruling party governance model.
There is no guarantee that countries whose governance systems incorporate China-derived elements will favour China in their foreign policy. China’s infrastructure investments may offer political and logistical network advantages, but China’s presence in Africa has yet to create exclusive zones of influence. Public blowback against debt-financed infrastructure projects, Chinese MNC and diasporic advantages within foreign economies (often linked to state backing), technology-aided repression, and allegations of spying and other instances of internal interference may drive African leaders into more conflictual relationships with China.
Likewise, China’s Africa ambitions in the military-security realm may be unexpectedly curtailed by the return of new state actors and private security forces to the continent. Such developments will also have an impact on Africa’s security environment, though not necessarily one that promotes stability. Security ties and defence-related lending may increase. Still, Africa’s long history of regionalism and independence-focused political movements suggests that China’s pan-African vision will require a more localised and nuanced approach to gain new adherents.