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Chinese Military Engagement in Africa

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Chinese Military Engagement in Africa

Written by Igor Pejic exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Desi Tzoneva

The political relationship between China and African states began to develop as African states gained independence during the second half of the 20th century. China saw important partners and untapped markets in many African countries, especially after 1971 when China obtained a permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Chinese economic, military and political interests on the African continent were even evident in the 50s. During the Bandung Conference, which was held in 1955, 29 African and Asian states sought to promote further cooperation in the fields of economy and culture. The main focus of this conference was on Third World countries and Peaceful Coexistence that was formulated by China and India, and which included the following topics:

  • Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity
  • Mutual non-aggression
  • Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs
  • Equality and mutual benefit
  • Peaceful coexistence

Besides these multilateral principles, there were also five major key points which further boosted Sino-African relations in the 70s, according to Professor Bruce D. Larkin:

  • The number of African countries with diplomatic ties increased rapidly in the 70s (in 1967, there were 13 missions in Africa; in 1974, there were around 30 diplomatic missions);
  • China joined the UN Security Council in 1971 (and was overwhelmingly welcomed by most African countries);
  • The Tanzania-Zambia railway which was in construction, was one of the biggest aid projects on the continent, implying that the Chinese were ready to commit further to Africa and its infrastructure;
  • China was still supporting nationalist movements across the continent, demanding independence and the end of imperialism; and
  • China stressed on the importance of a dichotomy between global superpowers and the weaker (third world) countries, emphasising the need for assistance in their survival.

After these initial steps, China began to provide African countries with economic, military and technical support, thus embedding itself deeper in the African society. One of the main and probably the most important reasons why China was so easily accepted in Africa is because the Chinese were never looked upon as superiors, but rather as a similar or equal society which fought for its sovereignty and freedom against colonial powers. The importance of this “we are the same”[1] image was crucial for the Chinese diplomatic approach in Africa as well as the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) military engagement on the continent. The apex of Sino-African relations was probably best stated by South African President, Thabo Mbeki, during his speech in Beijing in 2001:

The world and all of us are defined by the divide between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, the developed and the underdeveloped … It constitutes the difference between the countries of the North and those of the South … Together with China, we are commonly defined by our situation as belonging to the South.

Classifying African countries together with China, putting them in the same box so to speak, had an immense sway on the entire population of Africa. The Chinese come as equals, not as conquerors or colonialists; they will not treat Africans as inferiors, rather they will help and bring aid and development to African nations. Although this may sound great, an industrial giant such as China, which has global aspirations, will not and cannot be expected to treat lesser countries as equals without some form of exploitation in terms of trade, resources and geopolitics.

In the 21st century, the world order still remains much the same; it is defined by the desire of states to pursue their national interests that will promote their values and guarantee their security and safety. With its ever-growing population, China needs new markets, but also new sources of oil and gas. One of the primary interests and motives for Chinese engagement in Africa resides in oil, gas, raw materials and overall trade with the continent. The Chinese burst in gross domestic product (GDP) and in their standard of living demanded more consumption of energy for industry and also for everyday life. Although China has vast amounts of coal, gas and oil are rather scarce in the country (less than 2% of global reserves). Despite the fact that the Chinese are investing heavily in renewable sources of energy and nuclear energy, oil and gas still remain one of the main propellants of the entire industry. China, like other countries, seeks more favourable regions in which its oil enterprises can deploy their infrastructure and secure a steady flow of the “black gold.” Like most of the world, China’s main supplier of oil was the Middle East, but due to the growing instability and perpetual clashes between the region’s countries, China is trying to diversify its suppliers of this commodity. Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan remain important partners for Chinese energy resources, but African countries are becoming much more attractive. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which are present in Sudan, are spreading their businesses across Africa. Countries like Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon quickly fall within the focus of these state corporations. The volume of Chinese investment in the energy sector in Africa is massive; vast engineering projects for oil and gas but also other natural resources are being developed in Algeria, Angola, Sudan, Gabon and Zimbabwe. These are some of the deals China has made with some African countries:

  • In 2004, China granted a loan of US$2 billion to Angola in exchange for 10,000 barrels per day.
  • In 2005, China made a deal with Nigeria for US$800 million for the purchase of 30,000 barrels per day for one year.
  • In 2006, China purchased 45% of Nigeria’s offshore oil and gas field for the price of US$27 billion and promised to invest an additional US$2.25 billion for the development.

All of these investments and deals were, of course, followed by visits of high-ranking Chinese officials to Africa, including Hu Jintao, the President of China at that time. These important visits focused on political and diplomatic matters in order to solidify relations between the countries. Commercial reasons are another factor for the Chinese economy to push the frontier in Africa. Although the overall trade with Africa, and especially with sub-Saharan African countries, is relatively marginal, these yet-untapped markets can serve as a great place for Chinese goods. In the last five decades, Sino-African trade has been gradually growing, and the annual growth rate of around 3.6% has a clear tendency to accelerate. Also, over the years, the scope of goods that has been traded increased dramatically in variety; African markets are not only demanding textiles[2] as they did in the past, but also mechanical, electrical and high-tech products. In the 21st century, China has established bilateral trade agreements with more than 40 African states, and it has signed a ‘Bilateral Agreement on Encouragement and Protection of Investment’ with 28 countries. These mutually-beneficial agreements definitely paved a way for the future development of Sino-African relations.

As for China’s political interests, they are steadily following the economy of the country and its progression further into the African continent. One of the vocal points of Chinese foreign policy on Africa during the Cold War was the One China Policy and its promotion.[3] Africa played a major role on this issue, especially in the UN, with its support of the Chinese policy. During the 80s and some parts of the 90s, China’s political influence began to fade in Africa, but the issue was reasserted at the beginning of the new century. Political and diplomatic aid was restored and now focused on security and military issues and Chinese military engagement on the continent. China’s growing presence in Africa is perceived as a security threat by the US and is correspondent to the ‘China Threat Theory’.[4] The perspective of this theory also suggests that as China modernises its military, it will likely engage other regional powers, not only in Africa but in Asia, with Japan and the US as China’s main adversaries in that region. The growing power of China can also undermine the ideological-liberal values that the US is promoting across the globe. Of course, this is of no concern to China, but on the other hand, the US global influence as well as its eternal pretext for interference in other countries’ domestic affairs could be jeopardised. Because of this, the US will try to discredit Chinese involvement not only in Africa, but also in other parts of the world. It is essential for the US to maintain an image of a “good doer” in order to justify its economic, political and military actions in the world.

Security interests in Africa are driven by the economic growth of Chinese enterprises in that region. Beijing’s goals are to promote and to safeguard its investments and citizens, who are also present on the African continent. All of this is gradually increasing the political influence of the Chinese government. China has more than 2 000 enterprises in Africa and some estimates suggest more than one million Chinese are living and working in Africa. Regarding this fact, the primary threats that Beijing is trying to cope with are kidnapping, terrorism and piracy. China is showing great efforts in sea operations against pirates. Most of these naval operations are focused on the Horn of Africa, battling Somali pirates and protecting Chinese merchants. Terrorism and kidnapping are becoming ever more frequent as China is becoming more widely present in Africa. Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram in Nigeria have already pledged attacks against China, its companies and citizens in Africa.[5] Pushing its deeper involvement in Africa, China is also trying to represent itself as a responsible global power as well as increasing the combat experience of the PLA. The operational experience of the military is very important for every country which has global ambitions and Africa is providing exactly that. Besides this, China is trying to further bolster Sino-African relations by providing security and challenging major threats on the continent. At the moment, any wider security engagement in Africa may represent a slight problem to the Chinese government. Firstly, the PLA is relatively limited in terms of its power projection, and secondly, Chinese diplomacy is committed to not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Keep in mind that both of these factors can easily change if Beijing’s appetite for global power continues to grow.

The bulk of Chinese military engagement in Africa in the first decade of the 21st century came down to selling light arms to various countries, weapons which the West prohibited these countries from acquiring. African countries which were threatened by the possibility of insurgency or a civil war would not hesitate to get a steady supply of weapons and ammunition, even though they may have been of a lesser quality. Chinese AK-47s were present in every African national military and in para-militaries and rebel groups. Countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and Chad were some of the markets to which China managed to export its military goods. In 2003, China’s revenue for selling small arms in Africa was more than US$1.3 billion. In 2006 and 2007, China had expended the range of military supplies which was exported to Africa; besides small arms, China was now exporting artillery, combat vehicles, armoured cars and even supersonic jets. The military infrastructure for producing small arms was also built in Sudan, Zimbabwe and some reports even suggest Uganda.[6] At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, African countries were acquiring fighter aircraft from China. Nigeria negotiated a US$251 million deal with China for purchasing 12 F-7M air guard multipurpose combat aircraft and three FT-7NI dual-seat fighter trainer aircraft. China also sold aircrafts to Egypt and Kenya, while Algeria, Botswana and Morocco had purchased light strike aircraft such as the K-8 and the JF-17 multi-role combat aircraft.

This weapons trade may portray China as an arms dealer who is “here just for the money” without any deeper military or political plans for the continent, but with the dawn of the new decade, Chinese policy is getting a new shape. As I already mentioned, the PLA is increasingly present in peacekeeping operations as a part of the UN forces in Africa, with a tendency to operate and provide security even outside the UN framework. Notable PLA operations in Libya, Mali and South Sudan confirm the evolving role of the Chinese military in Africa. As the situation in Libya started to deteriorate in 2011, the PLA conducted a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) transporting more than 35,000 citizens. Even though the majority of Chinese citizens were transferred by civilian transport, the PLA’s role was important in terms of logistics and providing security and safe passage, especially for the ships which were escorted by missile frigates and were redeployed from the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese Air Force was also involved in the NEO, conducting more than 40 sorties moving Chinese citizens to Khartoum, making it the longest-range PLA Air Force operation known to date. This operation was carried out on short notice. Nevertheless, the PLA proved its capabilities of executing such missions with precision while coordinating with other state agencies. In 2012 and 2013, the PLA was also deployed in South Sudan and Mali. The South Sudan deployment had around 50 troops from the elite 162nd Motorised Infantry Division as a security boost to the peacekeeping operation of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Although the role of this unit is rather unclear, Beijing is committed to sending more troops to Juba in order to secure peace talks and overall security in the region. The deployment in Mali had around 400 PLA troops who were not only charged with protecting the UN mission in Mali, but also the overall infrastructure, from the Islamists’ intrusion coming from the north of the country. These deployments mark a milestone in Chinese UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and also signify the Chinese desire to implement its politics and influence much deeper in the continent. It should also be noted that these PLA deployments as peacekeeping missions are welcomed in the UN and in Africa as well.

The newest project China is developing, and probably the most interesting, is the military base in Djibouti. The Chinese Navy has been patrolling and battling piracy in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. Efforts to contain and dismantle Somali pirates are taking their toll on the Chinese Navy and the growing threats of terrorism in Somalia and Yemen are making things even more complicated. As the PLA is broadening its presence in Africa, especially in humanitarian aid, a stable base of operations is needed in this region in order to satisfy the needs of the military and other personnel involved in various operations on the continent. The construction of this base began in February of this year, although many Chinese officials are trying to deny that it is a military base and are marking the project as a “logistical support facility,” it is clear that China is shifting its diplomatic stance on permanent military bases and facilities overseas. The Djibouti base will have a great geographical position. Providing logistical support for the naval anti-piracy operation is just one of a multitude of possibilities. The base will be excellent for gathering intelligence, monitoring communications, transfers of equipment for peacekeeping missions and counter-terrorism operations that will be much easier and finally, the base can serve as a hub for the PLA’s further deployment into Africa as well as the Mediterranean. Djibouti is an interesting country to build a base in, especially since it also hosts American, French and Japanese bases. Choosing Djibouti instead of Oman (which was the primary country for the Chinese base) certainly has its political and diplomatic implications. There are also rumours that we may see another Chinese base in Africa, but this time in Namibia as a hub for Atlantic operations. The Djibouti base will have great significance for the Chinese policy of ‘One Belt, One Road’,[7] which also includes the Maritime Silk Road. To summarise, there are three core points China is achieving with the base in Djibouti:

  • China is combining its security interests with those of its African partners, making this a win-win approach.
  • China is changing its doctrine, emphasising the need for protection of its interests overseas proving that Chinese policies are not some empty, theoretical slogans doomed to never become reality. There is a clear sign of growing pragmatism in the foreign policy that Beijing is pushing.
  • The Djibouti base is focused on naval power projection, which tells us that China and the PLA Navy are heavily investing in the protection of their overseas investments and trade.

An important strategy that could be linked to the newest Chinese project in Djibouti is the String of Pearls.[8] The String of Pearls strategy, although it is not officially recognised by the government, represents a geopolitical move in order to increase influence by establishing naval bases, enhancing diplomatic ties, accessing energy resources and further modernising the Chinese military throughout littoral South Asian nations of the Indian Ocean. This strategy is essentially linked to countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, but also Somalia and Djibouti. The String of Pearls is becoming ever more relevant for Beijing because this route transfers most of China’s crude oil and other commodities (almost 80% goes through the Malacca Strait). Securing this route also allows easy access to the Indian Ocean and to the Arabian Sea. Energy is vital for the further development of China, and being such a strategic commodity, it is treated as a number one priority. The abundance or lack of this commodity may result in the progress or decline in the nation’s prosperity. China’s rapid growth and economic progression into the world’s markets made it difficult for its military to keep up with the pace of new security challenges and China’s growing need for energy. Thus, we can see the strengthening of defenses in order to secure a steady flow of this commodity. As mentioned earlier, the Malacca Strait is a primary hub for transport of various commodities from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Although it is relatively secured, both conventional and non-conventional threats still linger. Dependency on this strait raises concerns in Beijing. Piracy as well as non-state actors can disrupt or even cut the trade through the strait. This weakness can be easily exploited by state and non-state actors in order to pressure Beijing. Thus, we can see a growing naval build up and the need to secure both political and military interests in these regions. Besides energy, China is also trying to get access to the markets in each of the “pearls.” An economic presence can play an important role in solidifying Chinese influence in these economic maritime hubs as well as in providing a steady flow of products for the people living there. Although the String of Pearls is focused on South Asian countries, the Djibouti base is introducing a new dimension to this strategy. With the Djibouti base and a Chinese naval presence in the Horn of Africa, the String of Pearls could spread south towards Kenya, Tanzania and even South Africa. However, this is far-fetched and such a naval endeavor would require total control of the maritime route through the Indian Ocean, which could be and will be contested by India and the US.

China’s foreign policy is based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and there is only one condition that China demands from its foreign partners, which is to respect the ‘One China Policy’. This approach has been successful in Africa throughout the years. China has succeeded in implementing its enterprises in the African energy sector as well as in securing its position in African markets. Many African nations see a friend in China and the South-to-South relationship that China is trying to achieve is doing remarkably well on the continent. Finally, all of this has led to a successful deployment of the PLA as peacekeepers, which was welcomed by African states, thus providing China with more ways to spread its influence not only through political, diplomatic and economic means, but through military means as well. China’s military represents a security factor on the continent tackling both traditional and non-traditional threats. China’s future certainly seems bright in Africa, but as its influence on the continent grows, other global players will become wary of it. Although the US is not engaged in Africa as it is in the Middle East and Europe, Africa is becoming a focus of American oil diversification policy. The perpetual combat and inherent instability in the Middle East are pushing US policy makers to search for alternative sources of oil, and an abundance of this commodity can be found in Africa. If the US decides to follow this strategy, its interests will surely conflict with those of China. Another global player, the EU, will also be contested on the continent, especially in the North Africa and the Sahel region. Europe was one of the factors guaranteeing and providing security to Northern Africa and the Sahel region. With the proliferation of the Chinese military and its bases and the overall tendency of “exporting security,” African countries may turn to China as a more “friendly” partner. The French, who are the main security factor in the Sahel region, might find themselves a rival who, besides securing its own enterprises, wants to expand its spheres of operations including tackling terrorism, organised crime and human trafficking. Although for African countries it is good to have more than one force battling these threats and providing security and stability, it is not so good for those who have traditionally been present in the region (France in Sahel) because their position will be challenged and their influence will start to fade. Without a doubt, China has its place on the continent. Its future endeavours can bring prosperity for the African people, but it will also require their governments to take a strong stance towards Chinese corporations and limit their work in order to avoid exploitation. The legal framework will be crucial. An industry giant such as China is in constant need of fuel and resources to satisfy its needs. Often, this industrial hunger can lead to corruption and bribes, which are sadly very common phenomena in African societies and governments. Besides projecting its political, economic and military power, China should also try to solidify its soft power on the African continent. Helping African nations to build their own societies on legal constitutions and working political and judicial institutions can boost the overall Chinese image on a global scale as a superpower.

MA IGOR PEJIC, graduated in Political Science: Foreign Affairs Department at the Faculty of Political Science. He now holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Organised Crime at the University of Belgrade, Serbia.


  • Centre for Air Power Studies (Caps). “Djibouti – China’s Gateway to Indian Ocean.” http://capsindia.org/files/documents/caps_infocus_hps_09.pdf
  • Cooke, J. G. “China’s Soft Power in Africa.”
  • https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/090310_chinesesoftpower__chap3.pdf
  • Duchâtel, M., Gowan, R., and M. L. Rapnouil. “Into Africa: China’s Global Security Shift.”  http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/Into_Africa_China%E2%80%99s_global_security_shift_PDF_1135.pdf
  • Enuka, C. “China’s Military Presence in Africa: Implications for Africa’s Wobbling Peace.” Center for Contemporary International Relations, Jilin University (China).
  • http://www.japss.org/upload/5.%20chinamilitary.pdf
  • Kim, S. P. “An Anatomy of China’s ‘String of Pearls’ Strategy.”
  • http://www.biwako.shiga-u.ac.jp/eml/Ronso/387/Kim.pdf
  • [1] African countries and China suffered a similar fate and have the same perception of the West’s dominance, expressed in imperialism and colonialism throughout history.
  • [2] China is unrivaled in the textile industry. On a global scale, the country exports more than 40% of the world’s textiles and clothing.
  • [3] The ‘One China Policy’ refers to the acknowledgment by the US and other countries that Taiwan is a part of China.
  • [4] The ‘China Threat Theory’ basically suggests that the increasing power of China will destabilise the continent.
  • [5] This is mostly due to China’s treatment of its domestic Muslim Uighur population.
  • [6] China was very interested in Sudan’s oil industry. Beijing supported and supplied the Sudanese government with weapons throughout the long war in the country, thus securing its economic position there.
  • [7] The ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy is the idea proposed by the President Xi Jinping that China should connect with the Eurasia landmass in order to satisfy the growing trade and economy between these entities. One Belt, One Road consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt, (via land) and the Maritime Silk Road (via sea).
  • [8] The String of Pearls can be portrayed as a strategy route where each pearl represents a small sphere of political, diplomatic, military and economic influence surrounding a base, harbour or maritime trade hub situated along the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

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Joseph Scott

Interesting article, However, it suggested that the US wasn’t as focused on Africa. I would argue otherwise. Last year, AFRICOM conducted over 1000 separate mission in different parts of Africa. AFRICOM is also one of the most secretive of US regional commands, and constantly tries to downplay it’s activities and hide the scope and number of it’s operations. There is clearly an active competition between the US and China for influence and control in Africa.

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