Written by Ilaria Carrozza.

During the latest Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Johannesburg in 2015, President Xi Jinping announced that China will provide USD60 million to support the building and operation of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crisis.

Only a couple of months earlier, Xi addressed the UN General Assembly and promised an 8000 troops standby force dedicated to peacekeeping operations, alongside USD1 billion for a China Peace and Development Trust Fund for the UN, as well as USD100 million over five years in military assistance for AU peacekeeping missions. Moreover, last year China opened its first overseas military base in the small but strategic country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. While all these moves may not seem impressive as compared to the U.S. or EU’s contributions to African security, China has started to be involved in international peace and security only recently.

China’s diplomatic approach to Africa’s peace and security branches out to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where China’s permanent seat gives the country a privileged position as the (self-proclaimed) representative of African countries.

Traditionally, the PRC is committed to a foreign policy guided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, chiefly non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and respect for state sovereignty. However, the need to protect its interests and citizens in countries such as South Sudan and Libya, is encouraging a slow shift away from a rigid interpretation of such principles. Furthermore, China desires to be seen as a responsible power in international affairs and reassure the (Western) world of its magnanimous intentions in the continent. Thus, it is only in the last few years that Beijing has decided to take on a different approach to foreign security policy.

In order to do so, China has undertaken a number of steps on three different levels. First, at the bilateral level, relations with African countries have been stepped up. Since 2000, the FOCAC represents a unique institutional platform where China can present its foreign policies, and where a number of issues are being negotiated with African counterparts. Since 2012, peace and security feature prominently in the Forum’s action plans, which present detailed and extensive sections covering a wide range of security issues, including military and police exchanges, anti-terrorism, cyber security, transnational crime, anti-piracy and peacekeeping missions. Within this context, the Initiative on China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security was launched in 2012, with the objective of laying the foundations of security cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security threats.

Second, China has intensified cooperation with the African Union (AU), which it considers the chief pan-African institution in charge of maintaining peace and security. In 2012, Beijing financed the AU’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa, an event that was celebrated with great fanfare and was considered to be symbolic of strengthened relations. It is perhaps ironic that a recent investigation conducted by Le Monde Afrique accused China of having hacked the building for five years by downloading confidential data during night hours, thus questioning the transparency of Chinese operations in the continent (Chinese authorities deny the data theft, as does the chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat). Besides such symbolic actions, in 2015 the PRC established a dedicated diplomatic mission to the organisation, the third after the U.S. and the EU, as part of its attempt to go beyond bilateral mechanisms and obtain a deeper understanding of the security challenges faced by the AU. As mentioned earlier, more financial commitments have been made in an effort to operationalise the African peace and security architecture, including the USD1.2 million that Beijing has contributed to the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Third, China’s diplomatic approach to Africa’s peace and security branches out to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where China’s permanent seat gives the country a privileged position as the (self-proclaimed) representative of African countries. To be sure, Beijing has always been supportive of common African positions at the UN and has long advocated for increased representation of developing countries. Moreover, from being a reluctant member of the organisation and sceptical of peacekeeping missions (most of which are deployed in Africa), China has now become the biggest contributor of peacekeeping troops among the permanent members, and its overall financial contributions to the UN have increased, now accounting for 7.9 percent of the total budget (as of 2017), more than any other P-5 except for the U.S. Hence, China is now an active participant in building peace and security on the continent under UN frameworks.

Despite the formal absence of a ‘grand strategy’, therefore, China is indeed building its vision for a strengthened African peace and security architecture, by pursuing carefully crafted foreign security policies across three institutional levels. Its support for multilateral institutions and for building international peace comes at a time when the U.S. seems to be shying away from some of its global commitments (among other things, Trump announced cuts to development assistance to Africa), and the EU is preoccupied with internal challenges.

While those powers are not retreating from the continent (to date, the EU remains the AU Commission’s main financial contributor, providing over 80 percent of its budget), it is tempting to speculate on whether the new world order in the making will bear more Chinese characteristics. However, it remains to be seen whether in the long term, China’s foreign policy and its engagement in the African peace and security architecture will reveal more of an alignment with existing liberal strategies, rather than a Chinese alternative.

Ilaria Carrozza is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the LSE, working on Sino-African security relations and China’s foreign policy. She holds a BA from the University of Pisa and a MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She was the editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 45, and she had previously worked as a consultant for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). Her work can be found on her Academia profile. Image Credit: CC by African Union Mission – Somalia/Flickr.

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