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The China–Africa Peace and Security Forum: Practical Outcomes or Same Old Rhetoric?

Dr Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 06, 2023

    China’s oversized role in supporting Africa’s development primarily through massive amounts of loans and investments is well documented and tends to get a lot of media attention. However, equally important is China’s growing appetite for playing a role in Africa’s peace and security architecture and in the military domain. Issues relating to African peace and security are now considered to be a prominent feature of Chinese foreign policy rhetoric. Often, China asserts that it stands to benefit from a stable, secure, and peaceful Africa. This would in turn create a conducive environment that can ensure Beijing’s continuous access to the growing African market.

    For the most part, the security dimension of China–Africa cooperation involved the deployment of troops for United Nations peacekeeping missions, training of African military and security personnel, and counter-piracy operations. This mandate in recent years has broadened to include aspects like conflict mediation, counter-terrorism, policing and law enforcement cooperation, and military training. This is the background in which the third edition of the China–Africa Peace and Security Forum was held from 28 August to 2 September 2023 under the theme ‘Implementing the Global Security Initiative, Strengthening China-Africa Solidarity and Cooperation’ in Beijing. Over 100 delegates, representatives, and defence officials from 50 African countries participated in the event.

    The China–Africa Peace and Security Forum provides a common platform for military officials from both sides to convene and discuss issues of mutual interest. The forum serves two primary goals—consolidate networks of strategic communications between Chinese and African defence departments; and explore possible ways in which African militaries and security architecture can align with China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). The GSI was espoused by President Xi Jinping during the Boao Forum in April 2022 but formally gained traction on 21 February 2023 with the release of the GSI’s Concept Paper.1 The GSI is China’s regional and global architecture and is an effort to shape a new world order with Chinese characteristics.

    Outcomes of the Conference

    Discussions at the forum echoed a similar rhetoric of the need to strengthen China–Africa security cooperation to jointly deal with global security challenges and uphold international justice. General Li Shangfu, State Councilor, and Chinese Defense Minister during his address at the plenary session called African partners to work with China to uphold a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security mindset. This is to be achieved by focusing on dialogue rather than confrontation, partnership rather than alliance, ‘win-win’ rather than zero-sum to inject more certainty, peace, and positive energy into a global order riddled with security challenges.

    China continues to insist that certain aspects of its outreach will not change. For example, the tradition of helping each other, or the principle of equality, the direction of practical cooperation, or the spirit of valuing righteousness, will not change. With a focus on practicability and effectiveness, China aims to offer African countries with an alternative model for growth and development that is different from the Western models. Such form of ‘Chinese model’ aims to coerce African countries into incorporating Chinese values, ethos, governance system, and develop a similar view of the global order. While these lofty claims and ambitions may serve to propagate Chinese interests, the conference in practice achieved very little apart from rhetorical commitments.

    Drivers of Chinese security activism in Africa

    There are both practical and political factors that drive China’s growing security engagement with African countries. Beijing’s security engagement is inextricably connected to its other goals such as expanding logistical footprint, increasing political influence in multilateral forums like the United Nations, professionalise its military, improve operational readiness, gain military access, and protect its commercial interests and investments. With over 1 million Chinese citizens, 10,000 Chinese firms, loans worth US$ 160 billion, and investments worth nearly US$ 300 billion in Africa, protecting its citizens and investments is a top priority for Beijing.2

    An alarming trend in recent years is the increase in reports of attacks and kidnappings of Chinese workers in countries like Central African Republic, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Democratic Republic of Congo, raising question about China’s ability to protect its citizens overseas. The attacks have exposed the widening disconnect between China’s economic ambitions and its security apparatus abroad.3

    Peacekeeping and the supply of small arms and light weapons have traditionally remained central to China’s security outreach to Africa. Around 80 per cent of Chinese peacekeeping forces that are currently deployed are in Africa in addition to the 44 anti-piracy task force groups deployed to protect trade since 2008.

    However, there are some new areas of China’s security engagement in Africa, most notably professional military education (PME) and policing and law enforcement cooperation. China has been taking interest in African security governance and is working to promote Chinese policing norms within African police forces and governments.4 A paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in 2021 states that since 2018, China has trained over 2,000 African police and law enforcement personnel.5 In July 2023, the police chiefs of China and Ethiopia jointly decided to establish an ‘Ethio-China Law Enforcement Cooperation Center’ in Addis Ababa, reflecting a rapid increase in law enforcement engagement in response to crimes targeting Chinese citizens in Africa.6

    Conflict mediation is an area which has attracted Chinese attention. Buoyed by the remarkable and unexpected success of brokering rapproachment between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023, Beijing is seeking to promote itself as a consequential mediator in African peace process. In June 2022, China sponsored a Horn of Africa Peace, Good Governance and Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and appointed a ‘Special Envoy’ for the Horn of Africa region. Although this conference achieved little in practical terms, it did help Beijing signal to its African partners its willingness to host regional security dialogues to broker peace in the future.7 The African continent has emerged as sort of a ‘testing ground’ for Chinese security engagements abroad. Already, there are reports of the possibility of China brokering peace in conflict-ravaged countries like Sudan.8 It is only a matter of time before China looks to play a more consequential role in Francophone West Africa, a region that has witnessed eight coups in the last three years.

    Another important trend is the growing Chinese affinity to use the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to accommodate its political and ideological goals through professional military education (PME). China provides education and training to African military personnel to promote its governance model and build a shared understanding of security.9 African military officers and students attend various PLA political schools to receive training on how a ruling political party could use available mechanisms to exercise control over the military. This is conducted at various levels like regional academies, command and staff colleges, or at the upper level at China’s National Defense Academy and National University of Defense Technology.

    However, although the Chinese PMEs are considered less prestigious, cover limited subjects, and are less in scale and scope than Western PMEs, their applicability in an African context is much higher. Most of these Chinese PMEs train African officers in China, rather than training them within the continent. In essence, Chinese PMEs are working with African militaries to engender, foster, and reinforce a similar understanding of the concept of security through Chinese initiatives like the Global Security Initiative (GSI), the security aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the political architecture of defence building.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.