Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, during the 2018 Beijing Summit Of The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation – Round Table Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Photo Credit: (Lintao Zhang/Pool photo via AP)
By: Nick Impson, Columnist
On September 3rd, Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) with a speech announcing eight initiatives covering a familiar range of themes: pledges for economic assistance, the enduring Belt and Road Initiative, a commitment to fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and cultural exchanges between China and the African continent. The speech, however, diverted at President Xi’s eighth and final point, where he announced his vision for the future of China-Africa military cooperation:
China will continue to provide military aid to the AU, and will…[uphold] security and [combat] terrorism in their regions. A China-Africa peace and security forum will be established as a platform for conducting more exchanges in this area. Fifty security assistance programs will be launched to advance China-Africa cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, and in areas of law and order, UN peacekeeping missions, fighting piracy and combating terrorism.[i]
Coming on the heels of the first-ever China-Africa Defense and Security Forum this past June, President Xi’s statement illustrates China’s shift from primarily economic influence to an emphasis on building military power in the region. As China continues this new strategic momentum, they are set to surpass the United States as Africa’s principal foreign military partner. This should concern the US not only because of the potential loss of a strategic position in the region, but also raises questions as to what the trend of an expanding China means for US power worldwide.
While China’s increased military efforts in Africa are a new phenomenon, they build on a long history of influence on the continent. From the former Republic of China government of the 1940s to present day, Chinese funds dedicated to economic projects have consistently flowed to Africa for decades.[ii] In recent years, however, firearms have joined finance as a critical Chinese export to the continent. China’s share of arms sales to Africa rose 55% between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, outpacing Russia in sales to individual African countries 23 to 14.[iii] What should concern American policymakers is that the sale of arms is not the only front in Africa on which China is challenging US military partnerships.
On Christmas Eve in 2004 former Chinese President Hu Jintao first professed the globally-minded idea of “new historic missions” for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the PLA’s principal purpose is to ensure the Communist Party of China’s rule, President Hu believed the military could also be used to play “an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development.”[iv] This notion, not dissimilar to how the United States uses its armed forces, represented a paradigm shift in Chinese strategic thinking. What was an idea under President Hu has become reality under President Xi. Military operations other than war (MOOTW), such as UN peacekeeping missions, port calls, [v] and aid visits from People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) hospital ships[vi] are a new norm for the PLA around the world. According to the PLA, China’s 2,507 peacekeepers currently on active duty is a larger force than those provided by the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and France combined.[vii] Unsurprisingly, this increased emphasis on MOOTW means more Chinese troops have found their way to Africa. In 2017, more than 2,400 Chinese peacekeepers participated in missions across the continent, including in Mali and South Sudan.[viii] As recently as September 20, 2018, 100 engineering and medical PLA troops departed China for a yearlong deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[ix]
The United States has already felt the ramifications of the PLA’s encroachment on Africa. In August of 2017, China opened the Djibouti Logistics Support Base. The PLA’s first fully-functioning overseas military base is situated mere miles from the only permanent US military base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier. The PLA’s base has served a variety of military functions, including servicing PLAN ships[x] and conducting live-fire training exercises for ground forces.[xi] Its presence, however, has already caused friction between the US and China. In May, the United States alleged that China injured two pilots in a laser attack against US aircraft, an accusation refuted by China’s Ministry of National Defense.[xii] The provocative confrontation sounds similar to those experienced by Western navies in the East and South China Seas, and may provide a window as to what the future holds for US forces in Africa.
If China does successfully replace the United States as the preeminent foreign military power in Africa, it will be due in equal part to the former’s renewed commitment and the latter’s eroding commitment to the continent. Plans submitted in the summer of 2018 by General Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the United States Africa Command, recommended troop cuts and a draw-down in missions conducted by Special Operations Forces (SOF).[xiii] In the short-term this move would impact the United States’ ability to conduct counterterrorism operations and capacity building on the continent. With President Xi’s aforementioned FOCAC speech noting China’s willingness to participate in such operations in Africa, military-to-military partnerships with African nations could be ceded to the PLA. In the long-term, China’s growing military influence on the continent could damage key US economic and political relationships with African partners who are playing an increasingly pivotal role on the world stage.
While the United States has recently taken strong rhetorical and pecuniary actions against China, little of the Trump administration’s focus has been directed at assessing the impact of the PLA’s growing influence abroad. Focus on immediate issues like trade deficits has blinded the policymaking process to the long-term threats associated with China’s global military power projection. The U.S. must heed the risks being posed to future strategic interests on the world’s fastest growing continent. Policymakers must consider with whom these rapidly developing nations will ally in order to secure much needed economic and military support. For Africa, the answer currently appears to lie in the East.
[i] “Full Text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Speech at Opening Ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit”, China Daily, accessed September 23, 2018, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201809/04/WS5b8d5c25a310add14f389592.html
[ii] Elleka Watts, “As Xi Jinping Visits Africa: What are China’s Intentions?” The Diplomat, March 25, 2013, https://thediplomat.com/2013/03/as-xi-jinping-visits-africa-what-are-chinas-intentions/
[iii] Nan Tian, “China’s Arms Trade: A Rival for Global Influence?” The Interpreter, September 17, 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/chinas-arms-trade-rival-global-influence
[iv] James Mulvenon, “Chairman Hu and the PLA’s ‘New Historic Missions’”, China Leadership Monitor, No. 27 (Winter 2009): 2.
[v] “28th Chinese Naval Escort Taskforce Visits South Africa,” China Military Online, June 29, 2018, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-06/29/content_8075174.htm
[vi] “Chinese Naval Hospital Ship Ark Peace Concludes Visit to Fiji,” Xinhua, September 8, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-08/09/c_137379223.htm
[vii] “China Takes Bigger Role in World Safety,” China Military Online, September 27, 2018, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-09/27/content_9299897_2.htm
[viii] Niall Duggan, “The Expanding Role of Chinese Peacekeeping in Africa,” Oxford Research Group, January 23, 2018, https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/Blog/the-expanding-role-of-chinese-peacekeeping-in-africa
[ix] “Chinese Peacekeepers Leave for DR Congo,” Xinhua, September 20, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-09/20/c_137481937.htm
[x] “Chinese Naval Escort Ship Arrives in Djibouti for Replenishment,” China Military Online, May 16, 2018, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-05/16/content_8033911.htm
[xi] Live-Fire Exercises Conducted by PLA Base in Djibouti,” China Military Online, November 25, 2017, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-11/25/content_7842734.htm
[xii] “China refutes US allegation of laser use in Djibouti,” Xinhua, May 4, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-05/04/c_137156345.htm
[xiii] Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Prepares to Reduce Troops and Shed Missions in Africa,” The New York Times, August 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/world/africa/us-withdraw-troops-africa.html