For the past two weeks, high-ranking military officials from 50 African states have been in Beijing attending the first China-Africa Defense and Security Forum. What clues does this forum give about China’s gradual, yet steady, increase in military ties with Africa?
Until recently, many experts considered China’s relations with African states to be economically focused for the most part — and far less interested in military matters. Africa’s relations with big powers seemed to follow a certain pattern — with the United States collaborating on military and counterterrorism aspects, and China on trade and economic development.
The defense and security forum (organized by China’s Ministry of National Defense) is a sign of China’s growing military ties with Africa, as is the inauguration of the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions.
But China’s defense strategy in Africa is complicated — it can’t be boiled down to a simple correlation of Chinese interests in natural resources in the places where Chinese peacekeeping units are deployed.
My research on capacity building and Chinese government-sponsored professionalization training programs for Africans suggests this forum is an effort to solidify Beijing’s role as provider of expertise and technical know-how in a wide variety of areas, including the defense and military arenas.
Here are four findings that help explain Beijing’s defense strategy in Africa — and the broader impact of the defense and security forum:
1. China’s Africa policy looks to build strong defense networks. China’s bilateral relations with many African states already include sending military attaches and holding joint drills and live-fire military exercises. This forum — which ran for two full weeks — is a further sign of China’s growing military ties and efforts to deepen professional networks between Chinese officers and their African counterparts.
Holding the forum in China meant participants could visit multiple People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force sites. Showcasing technical capacities and meeting personnel serve as a marketing strategy to demonstrate that China is a serious security partner.
2. The forum follows up on China’s pledge to build Africa’s defense capacity. In 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged to provide “$100 million of free military assistance to the African Union in the next five years to support the establishment of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis.” Chinese authorities are still negotiating a plan for disbursement of the assistance.
Part of the Chinese government’s second Africa policy paper is a strong focus on the professionalization of training programs in which tens of thousands of African military officials are invited to China for workshops. During these visits, participants tour Chinese military facilities and see various cities in China, taking in positive impressions of the country’s successful development story. The defense and security forum probably included similar visits.
China’s involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKOs) is another sign of this commitment. China ranks second (after the United States) in financial support of PKOs and first among the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members in contributing peacekeepers. Since Xi’s pledge before the United Nations to further support U.N. PKOs with funds and an 8,000 troop standby force, China has been working on training peacekeepers — both national and foreign units.
3. China’s defense strategy in Africa is significantly different from the United States’ strategy in Africa. Beijing has taken a comprehensive approach, blending trade and investment deals and cultural exchanges with arms sales, medical assistance, troops training, anti-piracy drills and other programs. Here’s another example: The Chinese military base in Djibouti included huge investment deals and developmental projects that were signed into the base package deal.
U.S. foreign policy in Africa in 2018, in contrast, has involved mixed messages. U.S. policy has mostly focused on U.S. Africa Command missions to counter violent extremism in Africa. In contrast with China’s comprehensive approach, the United States, since the new administration especially, adopted a narrow, military-focused approach in Africa.
4. The defense and security forum mirrors another China-Africa forum. For nearly two decades, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has pursued steady economic and cultural diplomacy. FOCAC meetings have taken place every three years since the year 2000, with the location alternating between China and an African country. The continuity and consistency of the forum helped institutionalize China’s multilateral cooperation with African states.
But FOCAC also provided Chinese foreign policymakers the experience to apply this forum diplomacy to regions outside Africa (such as the China Arab States Cooperation Forum, initiated in 2004). The security and defense forum will probably be a recurrent element of China-Africa relations — and also a potential launchpad for China’s defense relations to regions beyond Africa.
Moving forward, one area of potential increase in military engagement between China and Africa is in providing training for policy and army units for the African Union as well as bilaterally for interested countries.
For China, the Trump administration’s “America First” platform may have opened up new opportunities to take on a deeper global role. The bigger picture here is that China under Xi is clearly moving ahead to take on that greater global leadership role — across many arenas. African state leaders are drawing closer ties with Beijing not only in the realm of trade and economic relations but increasingly in defense and military matters, too.
Lina Benabdallah is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. She is @LBenabdallah on Twitter.