China’s military base in Djibouti isn’t the only sign of increasing Chinese security engagement in Africa. Although analysts typically see China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a global investment and economic growth program, these projects also may facilitate increased Chinese security cooperation with participating nations. By early 2021, 140 countries worldwide had signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements — essentially frameworks for Chinese companies to build infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, power stations and telecommunication networks using low-interest Chinese loans to host countries. Implementing large-scale infrastructure projects requires time, personnel and robust financing, and violence and instability can affect the longevity and profitability of these initiatives. The safety and stability of the government and population of partnering African countries can play a role in the types of projects China looks to fund through this initiative.
To learn more about China’s involvement with African security issues, I conducted interviews and primary-source archival research in 2019 on Chinese security cooperation activities in West Africa. My research suggests BRI projects can motivate both China and host countries to increase China’s military engagement on the continent.
China has participated in multilateral peacekeeping missions on the African continent for nearly two decades, demonstrating Beijing’s commitment to maintaining stability in African countries. In 2003, for instance, the Chinese military dispatched engineering, transportation and medical units as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC). In 2012, China sent its first combat troops to the U.N. mission in Sudan (UNMISS) and sent troops to Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013. In 2017, China opened a naval base in Djibouti, calling it an “overseas strategic strongpoint.” This base provides a logistical supply point in a region where China has conducted anti-piracy operations. It also gives China a military foothold to oversee transportation and strategic activities in the Horn of Africa and other maritime routes.
China and several African countries also engage in intelligence sharing, technology transfers and joint military and police training. China led police training during the U.N. mission in Liberia in 2014, shared drone intelligence with Nigeria to counter terrorist activities in 2016, and donated patrol boats to the Ghanaian military to combat maritime piracy.
While the BRI is primarily an economic strategy, these agreements may also act as an unlikely pathway for more security partnerships. In Liberia, for instance, the Chinese government established a way to expand potential security cooperation through bundling it with the economic agreement. In 2019, Liberia's government noted a newly signed BRI agreement as a step to enhance and deepen policy coordination and other forms of “practical cooperation,” including security matters.
What is China’s security focus in Africa?
Many China-Africa scholars and studies attribute Chinese interest in the African security environment to China’s need to protect its economic investments and the safety of Chinese citizens living in Africa — and its reputation as a rising power. Traditionally, West African countries have relatively limited Chinese financial assets and fewer Chinese residents than other African regions. But within the first six months of 2019, the African Union, Nigeria and Liberia signed BRI agreements with China. Some analysts explain BRI investment agreements as paving the way for greater China security engagement. The most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Plan (2019-2022), for example, calls for security cooperation along the BRI. This cooperation includes but is not limited to military training, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism efforts.
Security assistance from Beijing also includes support for organizations that assist conflict-ridden nations. China has donated money and resources to the G5 Sahel to fight violent extremism in West Africa in addition to the United Nations, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Engagement with multilateral organizations supports China’s presence and involvement in the region.
Working with multilateral organizations has enabled China to sidestep direct coordination with African governments, in some cases. This participation allows China to assist and access countries that might not have strong bilateral political or economic ties to the Chinese government. At the same time, the BRI enables China to strengthen its bilateral, nation-to-nation ties, notwithstanding African countries’ deeper, historical ties with Western nations like France.
To be clear, the BRI is not a security cooperation mechanism — it is primarily an investment and infrastructure-building tool. African countries can forgo security cooperation with China while still participating in the BRI. And many of Africa’s BRI agreements are quite recent, making it difficult to project the full nature of this increased security engagement to date.
China-Africa security cooperation research has perhaps received less attention than more quantifiable aspects of the China-Africa relationship, such as economic and infrastructure development. China is one of the largest trading partners for the African continent, leaving little question that China’s involvement in Africa is growing, in and outside of the security sector. Under the Belt and Road auspices, bilateral agreements provide China access to critical areas on the continent where it can justify an expanded military presence.
To be sure, these actions have made U.S. policymakers concerned that China’s involvement in Africa represents a growing threat to U.S. interests on the continent. China’s increased visibility and influence mean that African countries can request monetary and security assistance from Beijing rather than its Western partners.
The U.S. State Department earlier this year implemented “Prosper Africa” to provide other investment opportunities for African business and development. An European Union initiative launched last year aims to increase European trade and investment with Africa. It also seeks to boost security cooperation and reduce the numbers of African migrants heading to Europe.
What happens in Africa may become a topic with broader relevance as China’s global power status continues to rise — especially if the lines between economic and security engagement continue to blur. As countries adjust their foreign policy accordingly, China’s military and security partnerships with countries in Africa seem likely to expand, posing new challenges and questions for African nations’ longtime security partners like the United States.
First Lieutenant Natalie Herbert is an officer in the U.S. Army and associate researcher at the China Aerospace Studies Institute. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or any other U.S. government agency.