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China no longer just a passive observer

Updated: 2016-01-08 09:03
By Harry Verhoeven (China Daily Africa)

2016 will see further political and military engagement in Africa as Beijing's deepening economic interests introduce more risk

As the dust settles after the Johannesburg summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in December and the promise of $60 billion in Chinese export credits, loans and development assistance, it is time to take stock of what China-Africa relations may hold in 2016.

In Johannesburg, President Xi Jinping and his African counterparts celebrated a seemingly unstoppable upward curve in bilateral trade volumes that, according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exceeded $220 billion in 2014.

China no longer just a passive observer

But the slowdown in the Chinese economy, the crisis in the extractive industries and the effect of the soaring costs of debt servicing for many African countries after interest rate hikes by the United States Federal Reserve could mean that the years of double-digit growth in Sino-African commercial exchanges are behind us.

Moreover, little of substance was publicly said at the FOCAC summit in South Africa regarding what is perhaps the biggest challenge China will have to confront in the foreseeable future: how to deal with the growing political and security exposure that economic success brings.

If the first phase of China's go-out policy toward Africa has been a resounding triumph and helped to underpin the economic miracle at home, the next phase will be more complicated, and require different instruments and a different outlook.

China's success in developing supply lines and acquiring large stakes in African economies has massively increased its exposure to political risk. The greater its dependence on African goods and markets, the greater the costs will be when access to these is disrupted.

China no longer just a passive observer

Traditionally, great powers go about defending their deepening economic interests by increasing their political involvement in partner countries - embassies, foreign visits, influencing domestic political parties - and then, over time, their military presence as well - joint exercises, military bases, alliances and even nonconsensual intervention.

A sober assessment of China's Africa policy must conclude that Beijing has already shifted substantially in this direction, and that 2016 will see further evolution toward greater political and military engagement on and off the African continent.

While the Communist Party of China remains officially committed to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs of other countries, a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy since 1949, recent events have signaled a de facto departure from the previously sacrosanct norm. Of all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China's troop contributions to UN missions are the greatest, sending more than 3,000 military personnel and police officers to the Congo, Liberia, Darfur, Mali and South Sudan - a remarkable reversal from the situation 15 years ago when Beijing did not even field 100 blue helmets. In some of these missions, China has begun deploying combat troops - not just engineers or civilian police - to confront recalcitrant rebels and jihadist militants.

China is an important military partner to regional heavyweights such as Algeria, Angola and Nigeria through training, arms supplies and technical assistance. From 2008, the Chinese navy has joined risky European anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, and China has supported a hard-line stance against Somalia's al-Shabaab rebels, sharing Western worries about spillover effects of instability to the wider region.

To help evacuate more than 35,000 Chinese nationals from the conflict theater of Libya in 2011, several Chinese ships crossed - for the first time in the modern era - into the Mediterranean, coordinating their operations with NATO. Furthermore, China green-lit French intervention in the Central African Republic and Cote d'Ivoire, despite these operations decisively shifting the domestic political balance in favor of one of the belligerents.

All of this illustrates how the principle of noninterference has been eroded in the past five years, and why we should expect more of the same in 2016.

Nowhere has China's increasingly interventionist policy been more in evidence than in South Sudan, where civil war broke out in 2013 after the country's secession from Sudan in July 2011. Chinese petro-interests in South Sudan have been well documented, and the question of how to develop an oil industry amid conflict has provided a steep technical and political learning curve over the past 15 years for Chinese governmental and business actors.

But the rupture in the South Sudanese ruling party and the ensuing destruction in oil-producing areas forced the hand of Chinese foreign policy and security mandarins to take on a role they have not previously played in Africa. Not only did Chinese nationals require evacuation, Beijing also approved the deployment of special forces to protect its assets in Unity state and Upper Nile state, while the country's special envoy for Africa, Zhong Jianhua, has devoted most of his time and energy to working with the US, Ethiopia and the African Union to find a political solution to the violence.

China's diplomatic support for the Ethiopian-led mediation team and continued political pressure on the protagonists, which has been extensively lauded by African and Western diplomats, will be essential if the peace accords signed in August are to be properly implemented and safeguarded throughout 2016.

The realities of Chinese engagement on the ground in South Sudan thus look very different than Beijing's historical interpretation of the principle of noninterference.

With conflict holding large swathes of Burundi, the Central African Republic, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia in its grip, and with terrorism so high on the international agenda from the African Sahel to Egypt and Kenya, the demands on China to step up and contribute to the UN's stabilization agenda are only set to increase. It is in this context, too, that Beijing's decision in 2015 to open a "naval installation" - some would say base - in Djibouti must be understood.

Official communication by the People's Liberation Army stresses that the outpost is meant for resupplying and refueling of ships participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. While this is not incorrect, it is incomplete: the naval facility is an important symbolic signal that strategists in Beijing understand that with economic interests come political and security responsibilities, but also a key node from which the projection of more raw forms of power in Africa is now, for the first time, an option for China.

Xi has repeatedly stressed his vision of China as a global maritime power, a responsible international actor, and a partner of Africa in peace and development. Putting this vision into operation in 2016 will not be a task only entrusted to construction managers and petroleum engineers, but increasingly to PLA officers and Chinese peacekeepers, too.

The author lectures at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is also co-convenor of the the Oxford University China-Africa Network. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 01/08/2016 page10)

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