China’s strengthening security ties with Africa

  • Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor, Department of Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University

Alongside its well-documented economic relationship with African nations, China has also been broadening and deepening its diplomatic, cultural and humanitarian involvement in the continent. What is less discussed, and was the subject of the last of Lingnan University’s series of Cities and Governance webinars, is China’s growing security engagement with Africa.

In his presentation, Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Government and International Studies, examined China’s role in United Nations' peacekeeping missions, its role in endeavours such as the fight against Ebola, the establishment of a military base in Djibouti and its security assistance to the African Union, as well as to a growing number of African countries.

Though China has been involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, it wasn’t until 2012 that the country started sending combat troops to South Sudan and Mali as part of UN Peacekeeping missions, Prof Cabestan noted. Since 2016, China has been the second largest contributor, behind only the United States, to the UN Peacekeeping operations budget – notwithstanding the fact its personnel have always made up less than 10 percent of those involved in any mission.

Despite this risk-adverse strategy, China has suffered 16 fatalities in operations in Africa. "Some people (at home) have been critical, asking why we're sending our boys to their deaths in countries that are very far from China," said Prof Cabestan.

In terms of its arms sales to African nations, China accounted for 17 percent of the continent’s total imports between 2013 and 2017, with 46 percent of the weaponry going to Algeria.

Beginning in December 2013, a swathe of countries across West Africa suffered the largest outbreak of the Ebola viral disease in history. By 2016, tens of thousands had died. China is a key economic and trade partner of three of the most hard-hit countries - Sierra Leone (48 percent of total trade), Liberia (18 percent) and Guinea (12.4 percent) – and has 20,000 of its nationals working in them, including on numerous construction projects, such as the Kaleta dam in Guinea.

In 2004, the PLA was entrusted with ‘new, historic, straightforward humanitarian and relief operations’ and, since then, China has resolved to take on more responsibilities and contribute more actively to the ‘common future of mankind’.

A range of PLA units were therefore deployed to West Africa, with doctors and nurses sent to Sierra Leone, and a hospital rebuilt there. Medical facilities were also constructed in Liberia.

The security of China's own interests in Africa has become another priority, and this fact is reflected the establishment of its military base in Djibouti, where the United States and France already had military facilities. A significant percentage of China’s imports (40 percent in 2008) pass through the nearby Bab-el-Manded Strait and the Red Sea waterway, and the base will also enable the PLA to better conduct international peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief missions, as well as offer emergency protection to its nationals in the region.

Prof Cabestan said the base in Djibouti was a turning point for China's military and may lead to the setting up of other PLA facilities in places such as Jiwani, near Gwadar.

While China is still behind the US, the EU nations and Russia, in terms of its significance as a security partner for African countries, its influence is growing. This, Prof Cabestan concluded, is in line with Beijing’s stated goals of acquiring a ‘world-class military’ and becoming a ‘responsible great power’.