Africa: China’s Laboratory for Third World Security Cooperation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 11

Chinese Peacekeepers in Sudan

China’s interests and exposure in Africa have grown exponentially over the past two decades. China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009 and continues to hold the lead by a wide margin. China is the largest bilateral funding source for infrastructure projects, nearly all of which are tied to construction by Chinese state-owned companies using a percentage of Chinese labor. Foreign direct investment in Africa according to China’s official statistics totaled $32.35 billion at the end of 2014, although some observers put the number much higher. [1] In recent years, China’s official aid to Africa has been averaging about $2.5 billion annually (China’s Foreign Aid, 2014). While there is no precise number for Chinese nationals living in and visiting Africa at any given time, senior Chinese officials usually put the figure at more than one million and some analysts say there may be as many as two million. At the end of 2014, there were about 200,000 Chinese working in Africa on contracts and another 62,000 providing services under aid programs. [2] Most of the other Chinese in Africa are businesspersons, independent entrepreneurs, small traders and tourists.

Attacks on Chinese nationals in Africa are not new; it is a challenge China has faced for more than a decade (China Brief, April 2, 2009). China’s growing physical presence has resulted, however, with more Chinese in harm’s way and, on occasion, as specific targets. The continuing attacks have drawn increasing criticism from the Chinese public and caused the government to consider additional measures to counter the problem. China’s physical presence and investments in Africa face the same challenges as other countries. The wake-up call came in 2011 when China evacuated almost 36,000 nationals, mostly contract workers, from Libya following the toppling of Muammar Gadaffi’s government (SIPRI Policy Paper, June 2014). More recently, three Chinese railway executives died during the terrorist attack in 2015 on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali that killed 20 persons (Caixin, January 27). In 2016, one Chinese peacekeeper was killed and four injured during a mortar attack on a UN base in northern Mali (MFA, June 1). Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack (Global Times, June 2).

China’s Evolving Policy on Protection

For many years, China operated on the basis that it was the responsibility of individual African governments to protect Chinese nationals who encountered security problems in an African country. While China continues to follow this principle, it has learned African governments are not always capable of providing protection. Consequently, China has looked at measures it can take to improve security for its interests and nationals in Africa. An official at a government-affiliated think tank recently commented that China has unique and long-standing political interests in Africa. Its contributions to UN peacekeeping operations and combatting piracy in the Gulf of Aden constitute a veritable laboratory for security cooperation with the Third World. If China’s new approach to security in Africa is successful, it can be followed in places like Latin America. [3]

China’s policy on Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which goes beyond the protection of Chinese nationals overseas, is also evolving. Courtney J. Fung, professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong, concluded that between 2000 and 2005, China took a hard line against intervention and in defense of state sovereignty. Between 2005 and 2008 it offered limited endorsement of R2P in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Darfur in Sudan. Since 2009, China has considered R2P an ally of sovereignty but spelled out a strict interpretation of the three-pillar strategy of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. China argues that states bear primary protection responsibility (Pillar One). It accepts that the role of the international community is to assist states to meet their protection responsibilities (Pillar Two). As for Pillar Three, the use of force through the UN Security Council is appropriate only if peaceful means fail (USIP PeaceBrief, June 2016; SIPRI Policy Paper, June 2014).

Chinese companies historically had a high level of tolerance for political risk in Africa. It was not unusual to find companies operating in regions such as the Niger Delta in Nigeria and the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, where local dissident groups warned all foreign companies to leave. This led to the kidnapping of Chinese nationals in the Niger Delta. In 2007, nine Chinese workers died in crossfire between Ethiopian government forces and those of the Ogaden National Liberation Front at an oil prospection field in eastern Ethiopia (China Daily, April 24, 2007). The Chinese company subsequently ended its exploration activities in the Ogaden.

There has been an ongoing debate within the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on the best way to deal with political risk in Africa. It has considered closer collaboration with local and Western companies, cooperation with European security initiatives and even establishing better relations with tribal leaders. The government has also urged Chinese companies to take greater responsibility for assessing political risk and accepting the consequences (Journal of Cambridge Studies, 2012). China’s Vice Minister of Commerce, Qian Keming, commented late last year that in 2010 China began to formulate guidelines for security management of overseas Chinese-funded enterprises and personnel, as well as emergency response mechanisms. He noted that the attack on the Raddison Blu Hotel in Mali gave impetus to this effort (MOFCOM, December 2, 2015).

China is also struggling with the issue of using private security companies in Africa. The government does not support Chinese private security companies (PSCs) going abroad. According to China’s Criminal Law, the possession of weapons overseas, even in compliance with the laws of a foreign nation, may result in a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Nevertheless, the Beijing-based Dingtai Anyuan Security Technology Research Institute (鼎泰安元安全防范技术研究院), a PSC, has been doing business in Nigeria for more than ten years but usually hires Western PSCs (Global Times, December 23, 2015). Another PSC, Shandong Huawei Security Group, established the first ever joint venture with a South African company, HW Raid Private Security, to protect Chinese assets and nationals in South Africa (Farmitracker, December 24, 2014). A Chinese think tank representative confirmed privately that Chinese PSCs are at an early stage of development, have little experience in using guns and are not yet ready to provide the kind of service required in Africa. [4]

China’s Evolving Role in UN Peacekeeping in Africa

China has assigned more peacekeepers to UN operations in Africa than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. It currently contributes more than 2,600 troops, police and experts to seven of the nine missions in Africa. Until 2013, China provided only non-combat personnel, mostly engineers, logisticians and medics. China’s assignment of an infantry detachment to the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to protect the MINUSMA headquarters and living areas of the peacekeeping forces marked the first foreign deployment of combat troops to a UN peacekeeping operation (Strategic Review for Southern Africa, 2015).

China has significant interests in South Sudan’s oil sector. In 2015, as a result of ongoing civil war, China evacuated more than 400 workers with the China National Petroleum Corporation (Sudan Tribune, May 22, 2015). China had previously agreed to send a 700-strong infantry battalion to the UN Mission in South Sudan. This constituted the first ever combat battalion to serve in a UN peacekeeping mission (China Brief, November 2, 2015). Equally important, Geng Yansheng, a spokesperson in the Ministry of National Defense, said the Chinese troops “will provide protection to the local people and other countries’ personnel engaged in such peaceful activities as humanitarian assistance and economic development” (China Military Online, September 25, 2014). The UN mandate allows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) battalion to protect local and foreign civilians, including Chinese oil workers (UNSC Resolution 2155, May 27, 2014). This policy also underscores that China’s evolving approach to African peacekeeping contains a component of self-interest (Growth Research Programme, May, pp. 50–52).

In 2015, President Xi Jinping announced at the United Nations that China will establish a permanent peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops and called on the international community to increase support for African peace and stability (Xinhua, September 29, 2015). So far, the standby force has resulted in a proposal to keep in China one brigade of troops (about 2,500) with engineering and medical capabilities available to the UN at all times. China also committed helicopters to the UN mission in Sudan’s Darfur region and $20 million a year for ten years to support a new UN Peace and Development Trust Fund (ECFR policy brief, June).

A New Look at Counter-terrorism in Africa

As terrorist groups have expanded across Africa and Chinese nationals have increasingly been affected by the attacks, China has taken a more collaborative approach to counter-terrorism. The deaths over the past year of Chinese nationals in Mali and an armed Chinese police officer at a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia have driven home the need to take stronger action (China Daily, July 27, 2015). China appreciates that terrorism is no longer just an internal threat for its nationals and interests (China Brief, June 2). The global terrorist threat may result in the use of special forces outside China, new counter-terrorism laws, greater pressure on foreign governments to crack down on terrorist groups, direct training and material support to foreign governments to reign in terrorists, and participation with other governments in anti-terrorism exercises (China Brief, January 26). At the same time, China is constrained by its long-standing principles of non-interference and security through development (OCP Policy Center, March 16).

China’s first counter-terrorism law took effect at the beginning of this year (Xinhua, December 27, 2015). It authorizes “exchanges of intelligence information, enforcement cooperation, and international financial monitoring with foreign nations and relevant international organizations.” It also authorizes China to assign PLA personnel and the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force to participate in counter-terrorism missions outside the country (Counter-Terrorism Law, December 27, 2015).

China’s most recent Africa policy paper states that it will support the efforts of African countries and regional organizations to improve counter-terrorism capabilities and fight terrorism, and help African countries develop their economy and root out the causes of terrorism, with the aim to safeguard regional security and stability and promote long-term sustainable development in Africa. In addition, China will strengthen counter-terrorism exchanges and cooperation with the African Union and priority African countries (Xinhua, December 4, 2015).

During a visit to Nigeria, for example, Premier Li Keqiang promised that China will make available information acquired by its satellites and intelligence service to Nigeria’s security agencies and provide training of military personnel for combating the Boko Haram terrorist organization (Xinhua, May 18, 2014). China subsequently sold armed drones to Nigeria, which have been used against Boko Haram (China Daily, April 21; China Brief, June 26, 2015).

China Expands Its Naval Presence in Africa

The modern Chinese navy made only three port calls anywhere in Africa during the 60 years from 1949 through 2009. [5] During the five years between 2010 and 2015, PLA Navy ships made at least 38 calls at African ports, 20 of them at Djibouti. [6] This sharp increase in PLA Navy activity is attributed largely to China’s participation in the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operation that began in 2008. It became apparent that China needed ports in the region where it could refuel and resupply. But while the threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden is essentially over, China continues to expand its naval and military presence.

The most dramatic expression of China’s growing naval interest is its decision to establish a permanent military facility at Djibouti, which is scheduled for completion in 2017 by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. China has a long-standing policy of no foreign military bases and is going to great lengths to describe the facility as something less than a military base. Chinese observers call it, for example, a logistic hub for Chinese ships to obtain replenishment and temporary rest. Zhang Junshe, from the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said it is “far less than a military base in its scale and function” (Global Times, March 15; China Brief, January 26). However, most non-Chinese observers believe this facility sounds more like a military base. When asked why China does not proclaim global conditions have changed and it now needs a military base, a Chinese think tank representative responded that “continuity of Communist Party policy” does not permit a break with the long-standing principle of no foreign military bases. [7]


China’s security policy in Africa is evolving slowly but inexorably toward greater engagement and a more robust physical presence. This is demonstrated in its global security policy changes, participation in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, gradual increase in numbers of personnel assigned to UN peacekeeping operations and the deployment of combat troops, greater attention to cooperation with African countries on counter-terrorism, and more frequent calls in African ports by the PLA Navy. It is most forcefully demonstrated by the construction of a military facility in Djibouti. While China’s military engagement in Africa lags well behind that of the United States and France, it has now joined a small group of nations with major security ties to the continent.


David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. He is the co-author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement.



1.     China Statistical Yearbook, 2015, section 11-19. The China Global Investment Tracker operated by the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation uses higher FDI figures.

2.     China Statistical Yearbook, 2015, section 11-22.

3.     Author’s conversation on May 6, 2016 at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

4.     Author’s conversation in Shanghai on May 10, 2016.

5.     David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, China and Africa: A Century of Engagement. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, p. 189.

6.     Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, Six Years at Sea . . . and Counting. Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, June 2015, pp. 123–134.

7.     Author’s conversation in Shanghai on May 6, 2016.