China’s Expanding Security Involvement in Africa: A Pillar for ‘China–Africa Community of Common Destiny’


China has been committed to creating an ‘all weather’ relationship with Africa particularly since the new century by persistently expanding its economic, political and, more recently, security involvement in Africa. China’s intensified peacekeeping efforts in Africa reveals not only China’s desire for maintaining the regional peace and stability for its economic cooperation and trade with Africa, but also China’s strategic intention of creating its own sphere of influence in the forms of Sino-African ‘Community of Common Destiny’. In so doing, China wishes to cement its relations with Africa that it identifies, together with those with other developing nations, as the ‘basis of China’s international relations’ and provide itself with a safe access to African markets, resources and investment destinations in order to sustain its economic growth that bases its long cherished dream of restoring its past glory of ‘Fuqiang’ (wealth and power) and rise in the global power hierarchy.

Policy Implications

  • Chinese foreign policy makers should be aware that China’s interest could be better protected if its peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities in Africa could be conducted in line with the principles of advancing democratization, ‘good governance’ and human rights protection.
  • Chinese decision-makers should be aware that it is in China’s interest to conduct peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations in Africa under the auspices of the UN despite its growing capability of intervening African affairs militarily.
  • Foreign policy makers in Africa and elsewhere should be aware that China’s involvement in Africa’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it may reinforce Africa’s peace and stability; on the other hand, it may reinforce authoritarian regimes and undermine Africa’s democratization.
  • Foreign policy makers in Africa and elsewhere should watch closely China’s security presence in Africa in the hopes of incorporating it into international efforts in pushing for peacekeeping and peacebuilding as well as for Africa’s democratization and ‘good governance’.

The objectives of China’s security involvement in Africa

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been committed to creating an ‘all weather’ relationship with Africa since the late 1950s when its relations with the former Soviet Union began to exacerbate. China has thereafter identified its relations with African and other developing states as the ‘basis of its international relations’.1 There is a convergence of opinions among Chinese political leadership and academics of international relations (IR) that Africa’s political espousal of China at international arena constitutes a significant component of China’s global power and influence (Luo, 2013; p. 116; Zhang, 2014b; p. 25).2 In addition to the political interest, Africa as a whole has grown for China as an overseas market, resource supplier and investment destination since Deng Xiaoping launched the market reform in the late 1970s. Africa’s resources and economic potentials have contributed to China’s economic growth that is perceived by Deng Xiaoping as basing China’s ambition to rise as an independent ‘pole’ in global power system (Liu, 2007, p. 31; Ye, 2004).

With China’s ascent at systemic (global) level, Chinese foreign policy makers are assigning more strategic significance to the creation of a ‘more reasonable and fairer’ world order, an official phrase for China, the emerging superpower, to challenge the existing world order dominated by the United States, the established power (Xi, 2017). To this end, China is in need of Africa’s political support as the latter is universally perceived by Chinese political leaders and IR academics as a victim of the current world order, and therefore an ally (Yan and Sha, 2017, p. 26; Zhang, 2014a, p. 61). Against the backdrop of Africa’s political, economic and strategic significance, China has substantially altered its security strategy toward Africa by extending its involvement in Africa’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding since Xi Jinping assumed presidency in early 2013. Xi Jinping aspires to make China–Africa‘community of common destiny’3 a paradigm of its kind and duplicable in the other parts of the world as a precursor to re-shape the existing world order. To achieve this goal, Xi Jinping specifically identifies security cooperation as a ‘pillar’ of China–Africa strategic partnership and the ‘community of common destiny’ as a result of his belief that ‘peace and stability is the precondition and guarantee for both of them’ (Cohen and Shi, 2015).

The hypothesis of the paper is that China’s expanding security involvement in Africa is the corollary consequence of China’s strategic objective of creating a Sino-African ‘community of common destiny’. This objective displays China’s desire to sustain its economic growth through intensified trade and cooperation with Africa. It also reveals China’s strategic intention of creating its ‘sphere of influence’ in the name of a ‘community of common destiny’ as a fulcrum for its rise as a global power capable of reshaping the current global system and world order. By expanding its security involvement in Africa, China is pursuing threefold objectives: The first is aimed to protect its growing economic interest in Africa; The second is concerned with intensifying a China–Africa strategic partnership to expedite the transition of regional order from the West-dominated to a new one dominated by China in tandem with its growing economic and political influence in Africa. The third is related to China’s status as a ‘stakeholder’, or in official Chinese phrasing, a ‘responsible power’, in the international community for maintaining peace and stability, particularly in Africa. The Chinese government assumes its involvement in Africa’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding could serve as a showcase of China’s responsibility for keeping peace, contributive to increasing China’s ‘soft power’ in the world in general and in Africa in particular (Ruan, 2013a; Zhou, 2018).

China’s expanded involvement in Africa’s security comes against the background of China’s rise and the ensuing strategic competition between China and the United States for global supremacy. A large number of Chinese IR scholars (e.g. Da and Zhang, 2016; Lin, 2013) believe that China, as the second largest economy in terms of nominal GDP, has actually arrived at a juncture of power shift. Drawing on historical lessons, they are making warning calls that China is doomed to be confronted with growing pressure from the United States as it is the latter’s primary strategy to preclude the rise of an emerging power capable of challenging its hegemony, particularly in the Asia–Pacific (Tow and Loke, 2009,; Yu, 2016). These scholars point to the demise of the Soviet Union and the ‘lost decades’ of Japan to make their argument. The US strategy of ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia and its US military operation of free navigation in the South China Sea appear to justify their argument as both of them are unanimously perceived by Chinese foreign policy makers and the average Chinese person as specifically designed by the United States (despite Washington’s denial, Panetta, 2012) to contain China’s rise.4

In response to the perceived US containment, the majority of Chinese IR scholars (Fu and Wang, 2017) suggest China to continue its focus on economic modernization as it bases China’s overall strength, including military capabilities as Deng (1993, p. 371) emphasized. At the same time, they advise China not to engage in direct confrontation with the United States until the day that China has obviously gained an upper hand. Specifically, a number of Chinese scholars (e.g. Liu, 2013; Xu, 2018😉 propose that China takes advantage of its close relations with the developing states, particularly those in Africa, to expand its political influence and economic interest in the hopes of narrowing its distance with the United States both in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power as soon as possible. Against this background, Africa’s strategic significance for China has dramatically risen and the Chinese political leadership views China–Africa ‘community of common destiny’ as an invaluable fulcrum for China’s rise at systemic (global) level (Zhang, 2016, p. 126).

The paper starts with an analysis on evolving China’s strategy for its rise at systemic and subsystemic (regional) levels to conceptualize its policy choice. The paper particularly endeavors to examine the main objectives and strategies underlying China’s foreign policy toward Africa’s security in the context of changing geopolitical dynamics. It also tries to make a critical appraisal of Africa’s significance for China in terms of economic and geopolitical interests. In this context, the paper delves deep into Chinese IR literature and mainstream Chinese diplomatic thinking that base China’s foreign strategy toward Africa.

Evolving strategy for China’s rise as a global power

China had been a great power for most of the last 2,000 years (Pant, 2011). It accounted for around 30 per cent of the world’s products before the first Chinese–British War (the first Opium War) that occurred during 1839–1841(Bregolat, 2015). The war turns out to be a prelude to the rapid decline of Qing China and the beginning of ‘the Chinese century of humiliation’ that lasted for just over a century till the birth of the PRC in late 1949 (Hsu, 2000; Liu, 2004). Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had both experienced China’s ‘century of humiliation’, and thereby cherished strong aspirations to restore China’s past glory of Fuqiang (wealth and power) and its status as a great power (Scott, 2008). Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, however, made differentiated policy choices to achieve the goal.

Mao Zedong observed that in the post-War bipolar system, states were roughly classified as ‘superpowers, middle powers and bottom layer states’ based primarily on their ‘hard’ and, to a lesser degree, ‘soft’ power (Khan, 2012). Mao preferred an alignment with a superpower in exchange for its economic assistance, diplomatic recognition, political endorsement and, most importantly, military assistance to secure new China’s survival and safety. This provides an explanation as to why Mao Zedong adopted the strategy of ‘leaning to the Soviet side’ in early 1949 to trade for Soviet assistance as well as protection from a possible military intervention launched by the US-headed West (Lüthi, 2008, p. 25).5 With the strategy, the PRC also survived the Korean War by rolling back the UN forces on the Korean Peninsula that, in the eyes of Mao Zedong, might serve as a springboard for the US invasion of new China.6

In the face of the enormous interest arising from Mao Zedong’s strategy of aligning with the Soviet Union, some Chinese scholars (e.g. Yu, 2007) argue that otherwise, new China might not be able to survive the political isolation, economic embargo, and military intervention imposed on new China by imperialist powers, let alone restore its status as a middle power in the bipolar system. It is interesting to note that some other scholars barely share this point of view and beg to differ. They contend that as the consequence of ‘leaning to the Soviet side’, China had over the decade of the 1950s subjected its national interest to that of the Soviet Union, not only hurting its sovereignty as an independent state but hampering its rise as an independent center of power as well (Academy of Military Science of the PLA, 2000; Xia, 2014). Moreover, this strategy had incurred the US long-term antagonism and animosity that resulted in China’s isolation from the western world, the most advanced and dynamic part of the then global economy and China’s backwardness particularly in the realms of economics, science and modern technology (Zhang, 2000; Sui, 2004).

With the aggravation of Sino-Soviet relations that started in the late 1950s, Mao Zedong had to, on the one hand, seek to intensify China’s relations with developing states, and particularly with African states to expand its influence at the international arena. On the other hand, he sought to align with the United States following Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969 as he considered the Soviet military threat as ‘most dangerous and imminent’ (Sutter, 2000, p. 62). Supported politically and diplomatically by the developing states, the PRC was admitted to the UN as the solely lawful representative of China in accordance with Resolution 2758 adopted by the UN General Assembly in late 1971 with more than one-third of the pro-votes from Africa (Fu and Li, 1995). Some Chinese IR scholars claim that China–America rapprochement not only helped China stop the Soviet attempt to launch a military invasion into China (Niu, 1999), but also helped it fit into the US-dominated western system and bring forth an invaluable opportunity for China’s economic modernization in the late 1970s.

Compared with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping apparently had stronger aspiration to transform China into an independent center of power by advancing Chinese economic modernization as he identified it among others as the base for China’s comprehensive prowess, including military capabilities. Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule, China has since committed itself to fulfilling economic modernization and eventually rising as a superpower and an independent ‘pole’ at systemic levels (Gong, 2014; Voge, 2013). To achieve these goals, Deng Xiaoping masterminded China’s shift in international relations by pursuing an ‘Independent Foreign Policy’7  and cultivating relations of economic cooperation with nations throughout the world ‘ignorant of what their ideologies and political systems are’ (Fujita, 1993; Liu, 1997).

The end of the half-a-century long Cold War and the advent of the Pax-Americana unipolar era in the early 1990s undoubtedly provided additional impetus to Deng Xiaoping’s determination to expedite China’s modernization and rise as an independent ’pole’ in global power system. The Chinese government was extremely astonished at the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the once formidable superpower, and the ‘domino’ collapse of other communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Radically different from the prevalent perceptions in the United States that the demise of the Soviet Union marked the triumph of America-style democracy over the Soviet authoritarian communism and the universalization of liberal democracy as the final form of human government (Fukuyama, 1992), Deng Xiaoping and his communist ideologues theorized the tragedy of the Soviet fallout as the corollary of its economic incapacity that failed to buttress the Soviet ‘imperial over-expansion’(Deng, 1993; Wang, 2007; Zuo, 2001).

This sheds light on Deng Xiaoping’s adherence to the belief that China should prioritize economic modernization and refrain from seeking military hegemony for the next one hundred years in the hopes of catching up with the United States sooner than later and avoiding a demise similar to that of the Soviet Union befalling China (Liu and Xue, 2002; Meisels, 2013). It is in this context that successive Chinese political leaders have over the past two decades since the end of the Cold War kept in mind Deng’s (1993, p. 370) dictum that ‘to sustain economic growth remains their paramount task. To accelerate China’s rise as an independent ‘pole’, the Chinese government in the new century adopts the strategy of economic diplomacy to enhance its economic, and by extension, political influence. Obviously, China has economic and geopolitical motivations behind its economic diplomacy. The former relates to advancing China’s economic modernization and its national prowess while the latter ensuring that with its increased economic wealth, China could establish its ‘sphere of influence’ and rise as an emerging superpower.

Changing geopolitical and economic dynamics and China’s strategy toward Africa’s peacekeeping

Since its birth in October 1949 to Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to Beijing in 1972, the PRC had been confronted with a critical challenge of military encirclement, economic embargo, political isolation imposed on it by the United States and its allies. Much worse, it had been involved in a diplomatic ‘tug-of-war’ with the Republic of China (Taiwan) that had been internationally endorsed by the US-headed West. Apart from the states in the Soviet Blocs, the majority of the developing states for fear of communism had shown reluctance in granting diplomatic recognition to Beijing (Xia, 2005). Africa was identified by Mao Zedong as the top priority in China’s external relations on account of the former’s multitudes of states and political influence as a whole in international institutions, such as the UN (Larkin, 1971). To overcome the diplomatic predicament, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Premier of the PRC (1949-1976), adopted a foreign strategy toward the developing states – the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (commonly known as the ‘non-interference’ principle overseas) that accentuate the respect for the autonomy and sovereignty of the developing states and their rights to decide their domestic affairs8  – to win their diplomatic recognition and political support in the international affairs.

Mao (1999, p. 441), pledged his African visiting counterparts that new China ‘will never play hegemony’ in Africa. Consistent with the ‘non-interference’ principle, China had refused to engage in any UN peacekeeping operations, including those in Africa, prior to the late 1970s before Deng Xiaoping returned to the Chinese leadership. Contrarily, the Chinese government accused the imperial powers of sabotaging revolutions, supporting dictatorial regimes and securing political and economic hegemony by interfering with the internal affairs of the developing states in the pretext of ‘peacekeeping’ in Africa and other parts of the world (Chen, 2012; Zhong and Wang, 2006). One would not completely disagree with China if an examination on the foreign strategies of superpowers and even some middle powers toward Africa in the Cold War era is to be undertaken (Feng, 2012; Saine, 2014). It is understandable for Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to adopt the ‘noninterference’ principle and require the superpowers and middle powers to refrain themselves from interfering with the ‘bottom layer’ states if a glimpse is cast upon the ‘Chinese century of humiliation’, in which China had suffered from bullies and incursions imposed on it by imperialist powers (Cohen, 2003). Equally importantly, China’s limited political, economic influence and its lack of capability of military projection in the rest of the world and particularly in Africa also contribute to China’s adoption of the strategy of ‘noninterference’. It cannot be denied that China tried to export ‘revolution’ and Mao’s ideology to Africa and elsewhere in the heyday of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ when it became the champion of world revolution.

China’s policy toward overseas peacekeeping has been gradually adjusted by Deng Xiaoping after he launched China’s modernization drive in the late 1970s, which is aimed to revive China’s wealth and power and ultimately boost China’s rise as a superpower like the United States and former Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping identified peace and stability as the precondition for China’s economic modernization that is in need of overseas markets, investment and resources. In this context, the Chinese government had to reconsider its perception of the UN peacekeeping missions globally and became a member on the UN Special Committee for Peacekeeping in 1988 (Taylor, 2014). Two years later, China for the first time participated in the UN’s peacekeeping missions by dispatching its military observers to the Middle East (Kim, 1999).

China had nevertheless refrained from being involved in any peacekeeping missions in Africa throughout the 1990s when the US-dominated democratization swept across the continent, which reflected on the one hand China’s unwillingness to confront the United States politically and militarily in Africa at a time when the gap between China and the United States in national prowess and particularly in military strength, was enormous. To the contrary, China has thereafter adopted Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of ‘concealing its capability and biding its time’ following the demise of the Soviet Union (Ling and Wang, 2004, p. 1346). In light of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, the competition for supremacy between superpowers is decisively hinged on their national power. China has thereby committed itself to concentrating on economic modernization that is specifically identified by Deng (2003 p. 395)) as basing China’s comprehensive power, including military capabilities. On the other hand, China’s refusal to be involved in any peacekeeping missions in Africa throughout the 1990s revealed China’s dissatisfaction with the US-promoted political transformation of African states from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones in that the process was considered by the Chinese political leadership as a Pandora’s box, triggering Africa’s political destabilization and undermining China’s political influence and economic interest in Africa (Chen, 2015; Zhou, 2011).

China–Africa relationship had thereafter experienced a ‘roller coaster ride’ in the 1990s due to the process of democratization that Beijing could never view in a positive way. Apart from economic interest, the political transformation had jeopardized China–Africa relationship and nearly put an end to China’s involvement in Africa. Some of China’s long-term friends, such as Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia (in office from 1964 to 1991), had to step down, giving way to newly-elected leaders who swore to foster the US style democracy and switch their diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei (ROC) (Wang, 2006). To China’s dismay, a dozen of African states such as Senegal, Chad, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau severed their relationship with China and switched to Taiwan (Liu and Pan, 2006; Shinn and Eisenman, 2012). Even Nelson Mandela, the then President of South Africa (in office from 1994 to 1999), to whom China had proffered enormous political, economic and moral support, expressed his inclination to adopt a foreign policy of dual recognition of both China and Taiwan simultaneously, which China regarded as a breach of the ‘One China’ principle and refused to accept (Ji, 2008; Roy, 2003).

Not until April 2003 when the ‘dust of democratization’ in Africa settled down and China had gone through the ‘hardest time’ in its relations with Africa did China begin to dispatch its first non-combatant peacekeeping troops to Africa, a company of engineers and a medical team, to join the UN missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Ayenagbo et al., 2012). China dispatched troops to Liberia and Darfur in December 2003 and November 2007. In late 2013 after China has risen as the second largest economy in the world and the largest trading partner of Africa, China dispatched an infantry detachment to serve in the United Nations peacekeeping missions in Mali –– the first overseas deployment of Chinese combat troops in a peacekeeping role (Thrall, 2015). In April 2015, China deployed a battalion of infantry in South Sudan (Ministry of Defense of the PRC 2014). More notably, China set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, marking a substantial shift in China’s strategy toward African security and indicating China’s intention of playing a more significant role in Africa. This dramatic policy adjustment took place at a time when the momentum of China’s rise is stronger than before and China’s interest in Africa is ever growing.

China’s unprecedented economic stakes in Africa makes it impossible for China to sit on its hands when Africa is involved in any chaos or wars as it had done over the last decades. This explains why President Hu Jintao proposed to intensify China–Africa security cooperation at the summit of the Forum of China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in 2012. Xi Jinping has attached much more importance to Sino-African security cooperation than his predecessors by completely altering China’s strategy toward African security. Just 10 days after his induction as Chinese president in early 2013, Xi Jinping set foot in Africa where he proposed to his African counterparts to create a ‘China–Africa Community of Common Destiny (命运共同体)’. Xi (2013) promised his African counterparts that ‘no matter how the international situation changes, China will always be Africa’s reliable friend and faithful partner in all weather’. Apart from increased economic assistance to and investment in Africa as a part of his efforts to create the ‘community of common destiny’, Xi Jinping pledged China’s commitment to bolstering peace and security that he perceives as the precondition and guarantee for economic and social advancement although some international analysts view Chinese commitment as protecting Chinese economic interest in Africa (Backman, 2008).

As he promised, China has since intensified its involvement in African peace and security by providing funds to African Union (AU) in support of its mediation efforts, intensifying security cooperation with African states and dispatching combat troops to the UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. At China–Africa Summit held in South Africa in 2015, Xi Jinping pledged to fund the creation of an African standby force and boost its capacity of crisis response by granting $100 million in military assistance to Africa (Perlez, 2015). Shortly before this Summit, Xi Jinping announced at the UN Summit in September 2015 China’s decision to set up a standby peacekeeping force of 8000 troops that China has registered in the UN in late 2017 and Africa is expected to be a key place where the force is deployed (Ministry of Defense of the PRC, 2017). More importantly, China set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, whose purpose is widely speculated to protect Chinese interests in Africa and beyond as well as providing military assistance to Africa in a faster and more convenient way.

The perceived interests of China’s expanding security involvement in Africa

There is a general agreement in Chinese political and IR scholarly circles on Africa’s increasing significance in political, strategic and economic realms for China’s rise in view of the latter’s political prowess as a whole in the international affairs, its abundance of strategic resources and its enormously economic potentials (Chen, 2014). The Chinese political leaders and IR scholars argue that these invaluable resources could, nevertheless, hardly bring economic prosperity, or social progress to Africa if it remains in political turbulence, or even worse, wars (Li, 2014; Zhang, 2012). Nor could they generate wealth and power that China aspires to obtain. The enormous economic losses that China suffered in such crises and civil wars as in Libya and Sudan made China acutely aware of the necessity of its expanded involvement in Africa’s peacemaking and peacebuilding9 for its economic, political and strategic interest (Qian, 2012).

Moreover, some Chinese scholars (e.g.  Liu and Cui, 2011; Luo, 2014) suggest that China should make its contribution to creating a more reasonable and fairer international order, which is what a ‘responsible big power’ should do to reap political and moral influence and increase its ‘soft power’ to the levels commensurate with its rising status in global power hierarchy. As far as Africa is concerned, these scholars argue that if China once again refrains from being involved in Africa’s peace and security as it did over the last decades, other powers will continue to dominate this continent and shape the regional order to their, rather than China’s, liking. This is extremely detrimental to China’s interest as evidenced by the chaos and destabilization in Libya, which incurred enormous losses to Chinese enterprises of over billions of US dollars.10

There is a general expectation among Chinese political leadership and economists that by helping maintain peace and stability in Africa, China could substantially increase its trade volume with Africa, which is of much significance in sustaining its economic growth particularly when it faces an economic downturn in the upcoming decade (Asongu, 2013; Fang, 2012). As it rises as a global economic power with the largest foreign exchange reserves, China needs not only to expand overseas markets for its manufactured products but also to find investment destinations for its investors. China has made a far sighted plan, aimed to upgrade its industrial system to a capital and technology-intensive structure by relocating its labor-intensive manufacturing in Africa and other developing countries. The widespread belief among Chinese economic circles is that this move will have eventually ranked China among the advanced nations by the mid of this century (Kim and Mah, 2009). This explains why the Chinese government masterminded the establishment of seven industrial zones in Africa in the hopes of facilitating Chinese enterprises to re-locate their labor-intensive production from China to Africa.11 This shows that gaining access to African markets and investment destinations is becoming an increasingly important element of Chinese economic diplomacy.

A stable and prosperous African market is of significance for China’s efforts to diversify its overseas markets and reduce its overdependence on the advanced nations. As shown in the White Paper on China’s International Trade, the economically advanced nations, particularly the EU, the United States and Japan have long occupied the lion’s share (around 40%) of Chinese international trade (State Council Information Office, 2011). A large number of Chinese economists (e.g.  Lin, 2017; Ni, 2017) note with concern that China’s overdependence on the advanced markets is resulting in increasing trade discords, and much worse, trade wars and threatening China’s economic security. These Chinese economists therefore urge China to diversify its trade partners away from the advanced nations on an early date by increasing trade with and investment in Africa. They argue that in so doing, China could not only reduce its overdependence on the advanced markets but also circumvent a wide range of tariff and nontariff barriers imposed on it by the United States and the EU by transforming ‘made in China’ to ‘made in Africa’.

Africa’s abundance in natural resources contributes to China’s expanded involvement in Africa’s peacekeeping and security as many international watchers emphasize (Cáceres and Ear, 2013; Rotberg, 2008). China’s natural resources turn out to be unlikely to sustain its economic development in the new century after its four decades of rapid growth since the late 1970s. Hanson (2008) quotes the International Energy Agency that ‘China’s net oil imports will jump to 13.1 million barrels per day by 2030’. Ferguson (2010) observes that ‘China consumed 46% of global coal production, and accounted for a similar share of the world’s aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc production. By 2035, China will be using a fifth of all global energy’. This reveals a fact that China’s sustained economic growth is increasingly depending on overseas resources and that the pursuit of resources and raw material supplies are among the most important motivations behind China’s expanded involvement in Africa (Alden et al., 2008). This provides a clear demonstration why the Chinese government has adopted the ‘going global’ strategy since the turn of the century to encourage Chinese enterprises to seek overseas resources and energy for their economic growth. Africa has since played a major part in China’s ‘going global strategy’ (Jiang, 2009, p. 59). In this context, it is safe to predict that Chinese foreign policy makers and entrepreneurs surely expect that the trade of Chinese industrial products for African energy and resources will remain prosperous.

Apart from economic interest, a great number of Chinese IR scholars (e.g. Deng and Wang, 2012; Liu and Cui, 2011) view China’s expanded involvement in Africa’s peace and security as an effective way to intensify China–Africa political relations and sustain Africa’s political endorsement of China in the world arena. Contrary to the common belief that rapidly rising China, the next superpower may no longer need Africa’s political espousal in the international affairs, Chinese foreign policy makers and IR scholars are generally of the view that Africa’s political support of China at the international arena over the process of China’s rise is as important as, if not more than, it was (Luo, 2011). The Tian’anmen Incident in 1989 made Chinese political leadership realize the significant importance of Sino–African political relationship: the political support from African states has, to a large extent, underpinned the international legitimacy of the Chinese authoritarian government and China’s global power. Even in Hu Jintao’s time when it is undergoing a rapid rise in the new century, China is still in need of Africa’s political and diplomatic support. For instance, African states helped Beijing in 2004 frustrate the Western states’ eleventh attempt in the UN to bring a formal condemnation on China’s human rights records. Of the 28 pro-China votes, 15 came from Africa (Sceats and Breslin, 2012; Yang, 2005).

Likewise, Western criticism of China over its presence in and policy toward Tibet is frequently rebuffed by African politicians. Africa has also played an important role in blocking Taiwan’s repeated attempts of reaccess to the UN in the name of either the Republic of China or the Republic of Taiwan. In addition, China has secured Africa’s support in a wide range of international events from Beijing’s bid for hosting the Olympic Games in 2008 to Shanghai’s competition for hosting World Expo in 2010 (Gao, 2008). It is noteworthy that the majority of African states voiced their support of China over its territorial disputes with the Philippines over the South China Sea and contrasted the United States and its allies that had obviously shown its sympathy with the latter (Wang and Chen, 2016). This is why China has demonstrated strong aspirations to win the loyalty of African states that would now and in the future back it in the international fora everywhere and always. This also explains why China perceives its strategic partnerships with African states at the highest levels of diplomacy as a significant part of its external relations (Rotberg, 2008). Africa’s significance in global politics as well as its economic potentials has provided impetus to Chinese foreign policy makers to strengthen Chinese political ties with African states, particularly through intensified summit diplomacy.

As well, Africa’s geographic position is of growing strategic significance for China’s lifeline of energy and other resources in the coming decades, compelling the Chinese government to intensify its military presence in Africa to protect the sea routes. James Holmes (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2007) at the Naval War College of the United States notes that the Chinese government has devoted substantial attention to the aforementioned security dilemma, worrying that ‘the US naval prowess might hold China’s sea-dependent economy hostage in times of a potential China–America conflict’. Obviously, China is unlikely to outsource its sea lane security to the United States in the long run, which explains why China is redoubling its efforts in accelerating the naval buildups of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). With the expansion of China’s economic interests, the PLA navy wants to better protect China’s transportation routes and the safety of its major sea-lanes (Ferguson, 2010). China has dispatched dozens of warships to join international operations against piracy off Somalia over the last decade and, more recently, set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, both of which reveal China’s strategic intention to safeguard its interests globally.

Geo-strategically, Africa is increasingly significant for China as a fulcrum for its rise at systemic levels vis-à-vis the increasing strategic competition for global hegemony between China and the United States (Chen, 2014; Ruan, 2013b). With the US shift in its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region comes greater possibility for China and the United States to compete for regional and global dominance. This leads a growing number of Chinese foreign policy makers and IR academics to the belief that China–America relationship could hardly be intimate, but may exacerbate as a result of their growing competitive interests and strategic objectives (Xu, 2017; Su et al., 2005). Similarly, some American IR scholars, such as Mearsheimer (2003, p. 56), hold pessimistic views of China–America relations and predict that ‘should China become especially wealthy, it could readily become a military superpower and challenge the United States’.Although Chinese political leadership has to date proclaimed to adhere to the strategy of peaceful development (commonly known as peaceful rise overseas) and refused to play hegemony in the same way as the rising powers of yore did, IR scholars within and without China worry that should China–America competition escalate, a vehement clash of interest between the two powers may occur (Callahan, 2015; McDonald, 2009). This triggers widespread concern among Chinese IR scholars and political watchers with the future of Sino-American relationship and an awareness of the possibility of a long-term competition between China and the United States (Liu, 2010; Yan and Qi, 2012). The British journal Economist (2010) observes that ‘Many Chinese scholars suggest that the [Chinese] government should give up the illusion of American partnership and face squarely the profound and inevitable strategic competition’. It is in this context that Chinese decision-makers realize more deeply than ever the strategic importance of Africa as an ally in its competition with the United States. China is now enjoying enormous advantages particularly among African political leadership over other peer competitors, which could be found in the remarks of Jacob Zuma, former South Africa President:

we are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China, we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gains … China’s intention is different to that of Europe, which to date continues to intend to influence African countries for their sole benefits (Hanauer and Morris, 2014, p. 10).[89]

It should be pointed out that there is a disparity in views on China’s presence in Africa between African political leaders and average African people with the former’s positive tone as opposed to the latter’s negative one. However, China is most likely to make full use of its advantages to consolidate and enhance its predominance in Africa. As Aaron Waldron (2008, p. 12) observed, ‘Beijing has the possibility of winning almost fifty friends in Africa … with a collection of such friends, China can create her own sphere of influence, secure her own resources, and develop military and political leverage’.

An appraisal of China’s expanded involvement in Africa’s security

A question emerges from the above discussion: is there any possibility for China to reap economic and geopolitical benefits from its expanded security involvement in Africa? As far as economic interest and energy supplies are concerned, the answer is rather affirmative. The Chinese government has made a blueprint for its economic growth over the decade from 2013 to 2023, which has been broadly viewed by Chinese high-ranking officials and scholars as the most vital period for China’s rise as a superpower (Mitchell and Wildau, 2015). In contrast to its relatively dropping trade growth with the advanced markets, China’s trade with Africa over the past two decades has expanded rapidly and China has risen as Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009. In 2013, the two-way trade skyrocketed to an unprecedented amount of $210.2 billion, twice as much as that between the United States and Africa (House, 2014). Despite the declining trade volume in the subsequent years after 2013, the figure stood at $170 billion in 2017 with an annually direct investment from China of $3.1 billion and newly-concluded contracts of construction of $ 6.5 billion (Ministry of Commerce of the PRC, 2018a). It is easier to find the rapid growth in China–Africa trade volume if the two-way trade is examined in a longer time framework. For example, the two-way trade in 2006 was $55.4 billion and this figure rose to $179 billion in 2015, 300% increase in China–Africa trade volume.

Some Chinese economists suggest that visàvis theworsening international trade terms, and possibly a trade war, particularly with the United States, China should open up new overseas markets in Africa and other parts of the world (Haslam et al., 2015). Moreover, the restoration of China’s Fuqiang and great power status would to a large extent depend on how well China could sustain its economic growth by gaining access to overseas markets and resources. This is why there is wide support among Chinese economists and entrepreneurs of the ‘going global (out)’ strategy, initiated by the Chinese government for the purpose of opening up overseas resources and markets (An, 2015; Tiezzi, 2014). Against such a scenario, the rapidly expanding two-way trade and economic cooperation between China and Africa provides China a convenient way to expedite its economic growth. The same is true of China’s efforts in accelerating the internationalization of Chinese currency yuan, particularly in Africa. As reported recently, top central bankers and finance officials from fourteen African countries met in Harare, Zimbabwe to consider the possibility of using the yuan in national reserves (Ministry of Commerce of the PRC, 2018b).

Equally importantly, China’s energy demand is escalating alongside its rapid economic growth which dramatically increases China’s reliance on oil imports despite its efforts in improving the efficiency of energy consumption. China imported 420 million tonnes of crude oil in 2017, which accounts for 68 per cent of its domestic consumption of crude oil (China National Petroleum Corporation, 2018). This figure may further rise to 72 per cent by 2040 as ‘demand is expected to grow faster than domestic crude supply’ (Barris, 2014). China’s overdependence on imported oil has triggered rising concern in Chinese political and academics circles that have an acute awareness of the vulnerability of the country’s energy security to the external risks (Wang and Chen, 2014; Zhang and Zhang, 2015). The continuous turmoil in Africa, one of the fast-growing and largest oil suppliers to China has posed a seminal threat to oil supplies to China. The Sudanese civil war and the Libyan crisis had caused a marked decline in oil supplies to China, partially spurring the Chinese policy makers to expand its involvement in Africa’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding (Simpfendorfer, 2015; Xu, 2010).

Nevertheless, China may find it hard to delve much geopolitical interest from its expanded security involvement by reinforcing its relations with the authoritarian governments in Africa. Some African political leaders may appreciate China’s economic involvement and financial assistance, both of which are usually attached few (if any) political strings, such as human rights and good governance. This, to a large extent, explains why Chinese commercial involvement in Africa more often than not fuels economic and political corruption and empowers awful governments. This explains as well why some international analysts, such as Moisés Naím (2007), accuse China’s strategy toward Africa and view its aid to Africa as a ‘rogue aid’. It is important to note that the general public and particularly the social activists in Africa are worrying about intergovernmental deals between China and Africa, and even China’s increasing involvement in Africa. For instance, Senegal residents have recently blocked a governmental decision to hand a prime section of property in the center of Dakar to Chinese developers (Economist2015). Even from China’s own experiences over the past four decades since Deng Xiaoping launched the market reform, it is safe to conclude that good governance, rule of law and environmental protection are vital to long-term economic growth and social progress. This sheds light on why Chinese political leaders, particularly President Xi Jinping find it imperative to push for the rule of law, anticorruption and environmental protection (Peerenboom, 2002; Xi, 2014). The same is applicable to Africa’s economic growth and social progress as well as China–Africa economic cooperation and trade.

In this context, if China refuses to support the international efforts in promoting good governance, rule of law and environmental protection in Africa, its expanded security involvement in Africa may succeed in the short run in protecting its economic benefits in Africa. However, in the long run, it could be detrimental to African law and order as well as economic and social progress, which will, in turn, negatively affects China’s economic interest arising from its economic cooperation and trade with African nations. Much worse, the aims of China’s involvement in Africa since the beginning of the new century has been not merely to reap economic benefits, but strategic benefits deriving from China’s ‘soft’ power in Africa in the hopes of boosting China’s rise at systemic levels and competing with the United States for global dominance. However, China’s strategy of ‘noninterference’ and endorsement of authoritarian regimes undermines its image and morality in Africa as Joseph Nye (2013) who coins the term of ‘soft power’ observes and therefore suspects China’s soft power in Africa.


The main hypothesis of this paper is that China’s expanding peacekeeping and security efforts in Africa is a corollary consequence of China’s growing economic involvement in Africa as well as its strategic objective of creating the Sino-African ‘community of common destiny’. This reveals not only China’s desire for intensifying its economic and political cooperation with Africa, but also China’s strategic intention of creating its ‘sphere of influence’ in Africa as a fulcrum of its rise as a global power capable of reshaping the current world system and international order. An important point emerges from the discussions in the paper, that is, the incremental shift in China’s Africa policy from refraining from being involved in Africa’s peacekeeping to providing the largest number of peacekeeping troops to Africa.

This policy shift and its intensified security involvement in Africa demonstrate that China is endeavoring to achieve three interconnected objectives in Africa. This first one is aimed to draw closer its relations with Africa by consistently expanding their cooperation from economics and trade to politics and security; the second is closely related to protecting its economic interest in Africa that has an increasing significance in sustaining China’s economic and social progress that the Chinese leadership has long considered as their ‘paramount’ task. The third relates to China’s efforts in reshaping Africa’s security order and architecture to better serve its enlarged presence and interest on the continent. There is an agreement among Chinese foreign policy making and IR circles that that China–Africa economic cooperation and trade provide an opportunity for African nations to gain wealth and prosperity, which will help China to gain more ‘soft’ power in and leverage over its African partners, and thereby help it to rise in the global power hierarchy.


1 China expounds on its diplomatic strategy in the Political Report of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2009 that identifies its ‘relations with major powers as the key, neighbors as top priority and developing countries the basis (大国是关键、周边是首要、发展中国家是基础)’. For more details see Zhang, Qingmin (2009) ‘Liu shi nian lai xin zhong guo wai jiao bu ju de fa zhan–dui dang dai hui zheng zhi bao gao de wen ben fen xi’ (the diplomatic composition of China over the last six decades–a text analysis of the political report to the National Congress of the CCP) Foreign Affairs Review, 26 (4), pp. 32–42.2 The intellectual weight in Chinese foreign policy has impressively increased since Xi Jinping’s presidency began in early 2013. Under Xi’s auspices, the policy proposals presented by scholars in scores of Chinese universities have gained access to Chinese decision-making circles, including the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the supreme Chinese decision-making body. For instance, the policy proposal ‘Moving Westward’ submitted by Wang Jisi, a professor at the prestigious Peking (Beijing) University, was transformed into the strategy of ‘One Belt and One Road’. Encouraged and funded by Chinese government, hundreds of think tanks have been established over the past 5 years by Chinese universities to present policy proposals, covering politics, economics, social affairs, international issues, etc.3 Some Chinese IR scholars believe that the ‘community of common destiny’ is a new strategy proposed by Xi Jinping, reflecting China’s concept of its relations with African countries: to seek common development and shared prosperity through economic cooperation and interdependence. For more details see Xi (2015) China–AfricaZhang (2018).4 In the views of some Chinese IR scholars, the United States consigned the Soviet Union, once the world’s second most powerful country, to ‘the garbage heap of history’ through half a century’s Cold War; nor would it tolerate the rise of Japan, its docile and obedient ally in political and military terms, imposing the Plaza Accord in 1985, which plunged Japan into the ‘lost decades’. For more details, see Ye (2011) and Yong  (2010)‘.5 Between the spring and summer of 1949, Mao Zedong advanced the principle of ‘leaning to one side’. The official Chinese IR literature believes that this is a major decision made in the light of China’s historical and realistic situation and in accordance with the existing international environment at that time. The strategy of ‘leaning one side’ is to declare that China would lean to the side of socialism as during the Chinese civil war the US stood on the opposite side of the Chinese Communist Party and supported the Kuomintang. After the birth of new China, the US might carry out armed intervention against China. Thus the above mentioned situation necessitated China’s allying with socialist countries. For more details, see Foreign Ministry of the PRC (2011Formulation of foreign policy of new China on the eve of its birth(online). FMPRC. [Available from: [Accessed 27 July 2018].6 The mainstream perceptions of Chinese academics on China’s involvement in the Korean War are radically different from those of the West. Many Chinese scholars characterize China’s involvement in the war as inevitable. They argue that China’s involvement was not merely a logical outcome of the Communist ideology that Mao Zedong upheld, but was more related to China’s geopolitical interests, territorial security and economic rehabilitation from its long-term wars. In their eyes, after the US-headed UN forces crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea and quickly pushed forward toward the Chinese border, Mao Zedong was left with only one option: to roll back the UN forces to the 38th parallel by sending troops to North Korea. For more details, see Qin (2010) and Sha (2010).7 The fundamental goals of the Independent Foreign Policy of Peace are, according to the Chinese Government, to preserve China’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, to create a favorable international environment for China’s reform and modernization and to maintain world peace. For more details, see Fujita (1993) and Huang (1998).8 The Five Principles, as stated by the Panchsheel Treaty, signed on 29 April 1954, are: mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; and peaceful co-existence. For more details, see Panda (2014).9 The Chinese government has insisted on its involvement in African peacekeeping and peacebuilding under the UN’s auspices since its first African peace mission. Alongside, its increase in the scope and intensity of African security as a consequence of its involvement in Africa, China has accentuated the significance of economic growth and employment for local peace and stability, which is different from international emphasis on the role of good governance and democracy in Africa’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The reviewer mentions the argument about the correlations between peace and development that has been prevalent among Chinese political leadership and fraught with official publications ever since the Tian’anmen Incident and the demise of the former Soviet Union. This argument claims that ‘political stability’ (or more directly, not challenging the Communist rule of China) is the precondition of Chinese market reform and Chinese economic growth. Some Chinese scholars of international politics, such as Wang Xuejun, believe that this is ‘developmental peace’. For more details, see Wang (2018).10 It is reported by Chinese mass media that Chinese enterprises suffered a direct loss of $20 billion due to the Libya crisis, apart from their large amount of investment there. As for the Sudanese civil war, China has to evacuate its large number of citizens working in Sudan and shut down most of its oil wells, which led to a great drop in oil supplies to China. For more details, see Leng (2011) And Yan (2016).11 The seven industrial zones are Zambian–Chinese Economic and Trade Zone, Nigerian–Cantonese Economic and Trade Zone, Nigerian Lekki Free Trade Zone, Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone (Egypt), Ethiopian Eastern Industrial Zone, Mauritius Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone and Algerian Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone. For more details, see Brautigam and Tang (2011).


  • Lei Yu is a Professor in the School of History and Culture, Liaocheng University and Guest Professor at Beijing University of Foreign Studies. The key areas of his teaching and research interests include China-Africa relations, energy security and international development. Email: [email protected]


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