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China’s Strategic Partnership with Africa: Significance, Challenges, and Implications for the United States

Chin-Hao Huang's project examines six key issues in China-Africa security relations.
August 31, 2010


Executive Summary of Research Findings:
Relations between China and its African partners have become increasingly regularized and institutionalized, encompassing a broadening range of political, diplomatic, economic, educational, cultural and military ties. In the words of Chinese and African leaders, both sides are working to ―further deepen a new type of strategic partnership.‖ To be sure, China’s security relations with Africa have elicited concerns and criticisms from the international community in recent years. In choosing close support for such countries as Angola, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Niger, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, China has selected some of the most corrupt and difficult environments. However, in many of these countries where China has sunken large sums of investments, it is quickly learning that a policy of pure self-interest is ill-fated and has begun to change its foreign policy behavior. To a large extent, this evolving behavior can be attributed to the result of social influence, where status, reputational risks, image concerns and a desire to maximize back-patting and minimize international opprobrium are increasingly important to Chinese policy elites. Such concepts as human rights, good governance, and accountability are entering (albeit gradually) the Chinese foreign policy calculus in Africa and are increasingly constraining and shaping its policy options. Put simply, Beijing appears to be more attuned to the sensitivities and complexities of regional conflicts in Africa.

Where then do we see this evolving Chinese approach toward African security issues in action, and where do we need to see much more? Supported in part by the USC U.S.-China Institute (USCI) for a month-long summer fieldwork research in China, this article identifies six key findings and draws from and ongoing research study on China-Africa security relations:

  • Chinese policymakers are seeking ways to forge a state-centric engagement approach with Africa to help build its international profile.

The 2009 Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Declaration held last November in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt is the key framework that outlines the broadening scope and scale of China-Africa security and military relations. The action plan identified ways in which Beijing would provide assistance and enhance cooperation with multilateral partners in the prevention, management and resolution of regional conflicts in Africa. Both the Chinese government and the African Union (AU) have also strengthened their interaction by establishing the Strategic Dialogue Mechanism as a regularized and institutionalized measure to exchange views on China-Africa relations and other major security issues through this mechanism. This effort further complements the multilateral process at the UN where Chinese and African foreign ministers jointly decided to launch a political consultation mechanism at the UN headquarters in September 2007 to ensure a more calibrated approach in addressing regional security issues. These various dialogue mechanisms are important steps in the right direction in increasing the level of discussion between both sides on a regular basis, opening the door for greater consultation, clarification as well as debate on areas of convergence and divergence.

It remains at an early and uncertain stage whether these newly established dialogue mechanisms will yield a more constructive approach from China in supporting peace, security, and development in Africa. U.S. and EU officials working on China-Africa affairs noted that an encouraging trend line seems to be China’s increasing activism on the peacekeeping front in Africa, which reflects an effort on Beijing’s part to uphold global norms and contribute to greater peace and stability in the continent. Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is the largest troop contributing country to UN peace operations, and more than three-fourths of its peacekeeping contingents are currently deployed in Africa, providing critical support in the areas of peace enforcement and post-conflict reconstruction in such countries as Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Cote d’Ivoire.


  • Challenges and limitations to China’s role in conflict management in Africa


As the China-Africa relationship deepens and matures, China’s expanding military, political and economic ties in Africa will need to be better managed to complement recent Chinese efforts to contribute to peace support and support peacekeeping norms in Africa. UN officials report some frustration at their lack of access to the details of the extensive bilateral military-to-military ties between China and the different African countries where their peacekeepers are also deployed (e.g., the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sudan). It is therefore unclear whether the bilateral military engagements complement China’s peacekeeping activities and the overall efforts the UN is engaged with to provide greater security and stability in Africa. UN officials are exploring with the Chinese Mission to the UN ways of supporting security-sector reform and issues related to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants in many of these fragile states. The Chinese delegation has reportedly not been obstructive; at the same time, it has not taken any major initiatives in this area.

As China’s diplomatic and business interests deepen in Africa, crafting appropriate policies to balance them is also likely to become even more complicated. The goodwill earned by Chinese peacekeeping contingents repairing roads, improving other infrastructure and offering medical assistance, along with China’s broader policy in Africa, may be undermined by other activities of the Chinese government or those of the increasing number of Chinese state-owned companies, entrepreneurs and émigrés in the region. The challenge for China will be to improve oversight and coordination to ensure that its bilateral military engagements and widening array of commercial links in the continent not only complement the Chinese peacekeeping presence and the broader global norms but also contribute to peace, development, and stability in Africa.

  • Fundamental principles on sovereignty and non-interference in Chinese foreign policy toward Africa.

On such sensitive and pressing issues as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Darfur, to name a few, there appears to be limited flexibility on Beijing’s end. Most notably, its arms sales to these problem regions have come under scrutiny from human rights advocacy groups as well as Western governments. Arms deliveries from China to these countries have exacerbated the human rights and overall humanitarian situation in many of the conflict zones in these African countries. For example, in Sudan, China’s arms deliveries to Sudan have been reported to adversely affect the humanitarian situation in Darfur. These purchase orders from the Chinese military have included ammunition, tanks, helicopters and fighter aircrafts, many of which have been used by the Sudanese regime in Khartoum to raid and bomb villages in Darfur.

These reports merit serious concerns since China’s willingness to support the continent’s authoritarian regimes with a ―no-strings attached‖ attitude seriously undermines peace and stability in Africa. Even more troubling is Chinese supplies of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Chinese AK-47 assault rifles are commonly found in African national armies as well as among armed rebel groups in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, and Uganda. France, for one, has been especially critical of Beijing’s self-interested approach in supplying these SALW to fragile and failing states in Africa. Its Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie publicly noted in 2006 that Chinese arms too often appear in conflict situations in Africa, in contravention of embargoes.

  • Which international norms will prevail over others in influencing Beijing’s Africa security policy behavior and when?

Chinese overall concern over sovereignty as well as its realpolitik visions of national power means that certain norms such as human rights and non-proliferation of dangerous weapons will be undervalued in its foreign policy decision-making process. Where international pressure becomes overbearing, however, China has yielded. In private, some Chinese decision-makers alluded to the ―ship of shame‖ arms deliveries to Zimbabwe in April 2008 as a case in point. The Chinese shipment—which included assault rifles, mortar shells and 3 million rounds of ammunition—was destined for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) government, which had recently been defeated in democratic elections held earlier in the spring of 2008. Mugabe, failing to get the majority of the votes in the first round of elections, was forced to go into a run-off right around the same time the Chinese shipment of arms was about to arrive. In the lead up to the run-off, there were reports that Mugabe has ordered violent suppressions of demonstrators, killed and jailed political opponents in an attempt to clamp down on internal security and turn the run-off election in his favor. The Chinese shipment was to unload its shipment in South Africa first before being transported on ground vehicles across the border into Zimbabwe. Upon hearing the domestic situation in Zimbabwe unraveling, however, union workers in South Africa refused to unload the shipment as they feared that the weapons will be used by Mugabe as part of his violent tactics. The coverage of this development went global and China was increasingly pressured. Initially, the Chinese government characterized its arms sale to Zimbabwe as ―prudent, responsible, and respectful of state sovereignty.‖ As the controversy ensued, massive grassroots movements joined forces with the union workers refusing to allow the Chinese vessel to dock. Regional leaders in southern Africa also condemned the shipment and Mugabe’s violent tactics. It drew international opprobrium, and in the end, the Chinese ship was ordered by Beijing to return to China.

  • Better managing U.S. and African expectations of Chinese security policies in Africa.

It would be wishful thinking that China would endorse such sweeping calls as ―regime change‖ or ―humanitarian intervention‖ in Zimbabwe. Such normative values as human rights non-proliferation of arms, however, are gaining traction and factoring into the Chinese foreign policy calculus in its dealings with Zimbabwe and in Africa more broadly. Even if China does not internalize these norms per se, it is constrained by measures taken by other actors, particularly African countries, the United States, and the European Union who have internalized these norms (more so with the Western countries). These measures thus alter China’s cost-benefit calculus in a way that its behavior and foreign policy approach toward Zimbabwe is more consistent with these new norms.

Chinese views on Darfur are also increasingly reflective of African opinion. A majority of the African states are frustrated with Sudan’s lack of sincerity to follow through with its international commitments; as a result, the African Union has refused to allow Sudan to take on the role of the organization’s presidency for several consecutive years. Many leaders in sub-Saharan African states find Sudan’s actions in Darfur offensive on human rights, religious, and racial grounds. In November 2006, with the humanitarian situation on the ground in Darfur worsening, then-Chinese ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, became very active and was widely credited in gaining Sudanese acceptance for the UN/AU hybrid peacekeeping force of 20,000 troops in Darfur. Subsequently, China also became the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to commit and deploy 315 troops to support the peacekeeping force in Darfur. The decision was applauded by the African Union.

Likewise, beginning in 2006, progressives in the Chinese policymaking elite argue that Sudan’s oil assets are not worth pursuing in the long run, and have suggested scaling back relations with the Sudanese regime in an attempt to burnish China’s image and international reputation. This has a triggered an important debate, with voices emerging within China that it should not maintain an uncritical embrace of such an autocratic and corrupt regime that has committed atrocious crimes against humanity and genocide inDarfur. Back patting and international opprobrium, in other words, mattered here for China.

These actions reflect the subtle, incremental shifts in its foreign policy approach, indicating that the established norms in the international community have a direct impact and placed certain constraints on China’s relations with Sudan. At this relatively early stage, however, there is no guarantee for success with Beijing’s approach. Sudan’s commitment to follow through is uncertain and thus Beijing remains vulnerable to continued criticism for enabling Sudan’s intransigence.

  • Looking ahead and future prospects.

China’s political, economic, security interests in Africa are increasingly complex and variegated. Where China has decided to uphold global norms or is perceived to be constrained by certain normative structures, there are instances of a more cooperative behavior on China’s part. However, there are limitations in each of these cases. One could argue that on such important issues as development assistance, human rights, and arms sales, China can and should do more to live up to international expectations and adhere more closely to international norms. Given China’s emerging role in the international community and its increasingly socialized behavior, it has yet to consistently demonstrate how far and for what purposes a rising China will exert its influence in the conduct of international affairs. Moreover, whether these changes in its normative behavior will reverse is still unclear. The ―social learning‖ process is therefore continuously at work as China deepens its engagement in Africa in the coming years. The persistence of realpolitik considerations and concerns about preserving state sovereignty has been moderated in certain instances, and this is seen in the changes in its definitions of interest or by linking realpolitik interests to other values such as image, reputation, and status. China has quickly realized that Africa will become an important stage where its image as a responsible global actor is forged. At this early and uncertain stage of the debate, however, its definitive security role in Africa remains largely indeterminate and would thus merit continued and more nuanced observation.

Project Outcomes and Impact:
As a result of this fieldwork grant, the principal investigator has been able to disseminate the research findings and develop a series of follow-up research projects, including:

  • an invitation to present the research work at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, United Kingdom (October 27-28, 2010);
  • ongoing briefings and meetings with senior officials at the African Affairs Bureau and the Office of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. State Department;
  • contributing as an author and principal researcher for a multi-year grant funded by the Open Society Institute assessing the impact of external actors on security sector reform and good governance issues in Africa (2010-2011).

Click here to view projects of other 2010-2011 USCI Graduate Summer Fieldwork Grant receipients.