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Michigan State University
African Studies Program
East Lansing, Michigan
28 January 2016
David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
China has diplomatic relations with 50 of Africa’s 54 countries and has some kind of
security relationship with all 50. In some cases, this constitutes no more than exchange military
visits. In others such as Egypt, Algeria, Tanzania, Sudan, and South Africa, it is a strategic
relationship that dates back one or more decades.
Surprisingly, China has only 16 defense attaché offices in Africa, a small number in view
of its significant arms sales and involvement in UN peacekeeping operations. On the other hand,
they are accredited to at least 30 countries. There are at least 28 African defense attachés in
Beijing. The security relationship is often managed, however, by high level military and civilian
Chinese and African delegations that travel in both directions.
Since the 1949 communist revolution in China, there has been a major evolution of the
China-Africa security relationship. In the early years, China had limited financial resources to
devote to Africa. Beginning in the 1950s and through the 1970s, China supported, often
modestly, African liberation movements that opposed colonial rule and a few revolutionary
movements that opposed independent African governments. They did this by offering military
training in China and Africa and supplying weapons.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, China’s share of conventional arms deliveries to Africa
constituted only about 3 percent to 5 percent of total deliveries. This percentage increased to 15
percent to 20 percent to sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and reached 25 percent between 2006
and 2010, making China the single most important supplier of conventional weapons to subSaharan Africa. During the period 2011 to 2014, China’s percentage of global conventional arms
deliveries to sub-Saharan Africa reached 38 percent.
The percentage for small arms and light weapons (SALW) was almost certainly higher
during all of these periods, but reliable data are lacking. In the past 5 years, in addition to
SALW, China has delivered to African countries tanks, self-propelled guns, artillery pieces,
armored personnel carriers, small combat ships, supersonic combat aircraft, helicopters, and
surface-to-air missiles. The quality of its equipment has improved and the prices are low. Most
of these deliveries are sales; China earns foreign exchange and African leaders welcome the
shipments because no questions are asked. Countries under Western sanctions such as Sudan and
Zimbabwe are especially appreciative.
China’s policy is to transfer weapons only to governments and not to opposition or rebel
groups. While China seems to abide by this policy, the quantity of Chinese weapons, especially
SALW, in Africa today is so large that some weapons inevitably find their way into conflict
zones. In the early years of the Darfur conflict, the government of Sudan provided Chinese arms
to the Janjaweed, which used them against Darfur rebel groups and for ethnic cleansing. This
outraged the Darfur rebel groups and led to several attacks on Chinese personnel and facilities in
Following the outbreak in late 2013 of civil war in South Sudan, the Chinese company
Norinco delivered arms to the government of South Sudan in 2014 as part of a $38 million
package. The first shipment caused such a furor that China stopped the remainder of the
delivery. Chinese (and Western) arms have also shown up in conflicts in Somalia and the eastern
Congo. Some of the arms have been obtained on the international arms market. China has not
put in place strict guidelines for monitoring the transfer of weapons to third parties once they
have been delivered to an African government.
Today, Africa remains a relatively low security priority compared to countries on its
periphery and major Western powers. But China relies heavily on Africa for energy and certain
minerals, giving the continent an increasing security importance. There is a loose correlation
between China’s military cooperation and resource rich African countries.
Protection of Chinese Interests and Nationals
China is paying more attention to the protection of its interests outside its borders.
President Xi Jinping stated in 2014 that “we should protect China’s overseas interests and
continue to improve our capacity to provide such protection.” In recent years, Chinese interests
and nationals have encountered increasing threats and attacks.
Chinese ships and crews became subject to Somali pirate attacks. More than a dozen
Chinese business persons have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta region. In 2007, a rebel group
killed 9 Chinese energy prospection personnel in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Several oil and
construction company employees were kidnapped and some killed in Sudan.
China evacuated 36,000 contractors from Libya in 2011 and more than 1,000 in 2014
after some had returned to the country. The initial evacuation from Libya was a wake-up call.
Most of the Chinese were working on contractual infrastructure projects valued at about $19
billion for Chinese companies. While China orchestrated a successful evacuation, this incident
underscored the large number of nationals it had in Libya and exposed China’s limited ability to
protect its economic and security interests in Africa.
In 2014, 10 Chinese construction workers were kidnapped in northern Cameroon by
Boko Haram and eventually released. In 2015, China evacuated more than 400 oil workers from
South Sudan, a country where it has significant oil investments, following the outbreak of civil
war. In 2015, 3 senior Chinese managers were killed during a terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu
hotel in Bamako, Mali, by an al-Qaeda linked group. Chinese nationals, who number more than
one million in Africa, are getting into harm’s way just as Westerners have done for decades.
These events are causing China to take a harder look at risk assessment before making
such a large commitment in certain regions of Africa. Traditionally, China has relied on African
governments to protect its nationals in Africa. While this is still the policy, China is also looking
to the private security sector to provide protection. The Chinese private security industry is,
however, at an early stage of development and largely confined to China. One of the first
arrangements in Africa was between the Shandong Huawei security company and a South
African security company.
China prides itself on a policy of non-interference but its growing interests in Africa and
resultant security challenges are putting this principle to the test. There is a major debate in
China concerning a possible reinterpretation of the non-interference principle. While the
government of China insists there has been no change in policy, officials and academics are
beginning to use terminology such as “constructive involvement,” “creative involvement,”
“conditional intervention,” and “flexible engagement.”
A Chinese official recently explained that there is no violation of the non-interference
principle so long as there is no violation of another country’s sovereignty. If, for example, the
parties to South Sudan’s civil war invite China to mediate the conflict, there has been no
violation of sovereignty and thus no violation of non-interference. A major study of this issue
published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded that “China has
engaged in a policy of pragmatic adaptation and shown growing flexibilities in its practice of
China was initially cool to the idea of UN peacekeeping operations anywhere in the
world. Its response has evolved and since the beginning of this century China has become
increasingly supportive of UN peacekeeping, especially operations in Africa. It currently has
about 2,600 troops, police and experts assigned to 7 of the 9 UN peacekeeping operations in
Africa. This is a larger contribution than any other permanent member of the UN Security
Council but notably fewer than the number provided by India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Ethiopia.
Most of the Chinese personnel are assigned to Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, Mali and Liberia. China also is the 6th largest contributor to the UN
peacekeeping budget at 6 percent of the total budget; the United States is the largest contributor
at 28 percent.
China traditionally assigned non-combat engineers, medical, and logistical personnel to
UN peacekeeping operations. China’s mindset about UN peacekeeping began to change after
2012 when it agreed to send a combat security unit to Mali. It followed this in 2015 when it sent
a combat battalion to the UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan. The mandate was not only
to protect the local people but “other countries’ personnel engaged in such peaceful activities as
humanitarian assistance and economic development.” This allows the People’s Liberation Army
battalion to protect local and foreign civilians, including Chinese oil workers.
China also announced in 2015 that it would send a helicopter unit to Darfur, the first ever
such unit to Africa. China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping in Africa has been widely praised
by all concerned. There has been a steady progression of muscular engagement by Chinese
peacekeepers in Africa.
China has also stepped up its support for African Union peacekeeping. In recent years, it
made small contributions to African Union peacekeeping activities in Sudan and Somalia. In
2015, China said it would provide $60 million to the African Union to build and maintain the
African Standby Force and support UN peacekeeping in Africa.
Somali pirate attacks on Chinese ships and crews in the Gulf of Aden resulted in late
2008 in the sending of two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates and a supply ship to
assist the international anti-piracy effort. Rotating every four months, China continues this
contribution and has no plan to bring it to an end even though the piracy threat has virtually
disappeared. The Chinese operate independently of Western naval task forces, but have been
praised for their contribution, cooperation, and professionalism.
This naval engagement in northeast Africa has resulted in a significant increase in PLAN
ship visits to Africa. Since the beginning of its anti-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden,
PLAN vessels have made more than 16 port calls at Djibouti and one or more in Algiers,
Alexandria, Mombasa, Casablanca, Maputo, Port Victoria, Durban, Walvis Bay, and Dar es
Salaam. Deployment in the Gulf of Aden has significantly improved the PLAN’s ability to
operate in waters far from China and underscored the need for naval support facilities. China has
also used submarines in the anti-piracy operation in an effort to improve the skills of its
China’s 2015 military white paper emphasized that the role of the PLAN will gradually
shift from “offshore waters defense” to a combination of “offshore waters defense” and “open
seas protection.” It added that great importance must be attached to managing the seas and
oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. The paper said China will develop a modern
maritime military force commensurate with its national security and development interests,
protect the security of strategic sea lines of communication and overseas interests, and participate
in international maritime cooperation so that it can become a maritime power.
President Xi Jinping’s announcement in 2013 of the Maritime Silk Road, which is
designed to connect China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, will
add to China’s interests in eastern and northern Africa. The vice president of the People’s
Liberation Army Dalian Naval Academy commented in July 2015 at a symposium on the
Maritime Silk Road that military bases are an important part of the PLAN’s maritime strategic
pre-positioning. He said the PLAN “will establish strategic support points overseas with a focus
on personnel and materials support and warship maintenance.”
China subsequently confirmed that it has reached an agreement with Djibouti to construct
a facility that will enable China to “better fulfill escort missions and make new contributions to
regional peace and stability.” China says the facility in Djibouti is to “provide logistical support
to Chinese fleets performing escort duties in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali
China has a long standing policy of no foreign military bases. It is making every effort to
avoid describing the facility in Djibouti as a military base. Once the facility is functioning and
visible to the outside world, it may be difficult to describe it as anything other than a military
base. Whatever it is, however, it marks a major turning point in China’s security policy generally
and especially in Africa.
Looking to the future, China is poised to play an even greater role in African security. It
is in the process of expanding its naval reach into the western Indian Ocean and will eventually
extend this engagement around Africa as it becomes a major maritime power. This will raise the
question of a need for additional support facilities in African ports. While there has been much
publicity given to the concept of the Maritime Silk Road, it remains unclear what this initiative
means for Africa.
China has expressed a willingness to collaborate more closely with African governments
that are experiencing terrorist threats. Growing terrorist concerns involving a Muslim minority
in western China may, however, complicate this collaboration with predominantly Muslim
countries in Africa or those that have a significant Muslim minority.
China has established a solid record in supporting UN peacekeeping operations and has
pledged to increase that support. It has also indicated that it is prepared to be more supportive of
African Union peacekeeping efforts.
China’s approach is to take its cue from the Africans; it is reluctant to get involved in
security operations where Western countries have the lead or play a prominent role. China will
almost certainly continue to follow this policy, although there will be cases where Chinese and
African interests diverge. Burundi is a case in point. Xi Jinping was one of the first leaders to
congratulate President Nkurunziza after his controversial reelection in August 2015. The African
Union subsequently proposed sending a 5,000 person peacekeeping force to Burundi, which
Nkurunziza rejected. The African Union asked China to support this effort as part of an African
solution to an African problem. This posed a dilemma for China.
China is learning as the United States has learned on many occasions, the more you get
involved in foreign security issues, the more complicated and challenging you may find your
own position. From an African perspective, the big question is how the African Union and
African governments can maximize the benefits of China’s increased interest in African security