ISS Today: China tests its military muscle in Africa


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    ISS Today

    Is the hugely successful film Wolf Warrior
    a metaphor for China’s growing presence in Africa – and
    perhaps beyond? It’s an action thriller featuring a Rambo-like
    Chinese hero called Leng Feng. He takes on the bad guys, first
    at home and then in Africa, where he foils Somali pirates,
    rebels and mercenaries trying to overthrow a government. In
    passing he tackles a deadly (fictitious) infectious disease
    called Lamanla.

    Like his American inspiration, Feng is
    something of a maverick who has been discharged from the
    Chinese army and who pushes official limits. Nonetheless he is
    ultimately a great patriot (otherwise, presumably, the Chinese
    embassy in Pretoria wouldn’t be hosting the South African
    premiere next week).

    Wolf Warrior 2 is being seen as a
    symbol of China’s growing security presence in Africa where,
    like Feng, it is also fighting Somali pirates, rebels,
    terrorists and other enemies of the established order – not to
    mention Ebola. The film is being interpreted by some as a
    cinematic expression of China’s growing assertiveness on the
    world stage under President Xi Jinping.

    He told the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th
    Congress last month, for example, that it was time for his
    nation to become ‘a mighty force’ that took a greater lead on
    the world stage on political, economic, military and
    environmental issues.

    Africa, some Chinese scholars believe, is
    being used by Beijing as a zone of experimentation for this
    more assertive global role. This is in contrast to China’s
    traditional principle of non-interference in the affairs of
    other countries, as Sinologist Chris Alden noted at the launch
    of his book China and Africa: Building Peace and Security
    Co-operation on the Continent
    at the South African
    Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

    In the book, Alden – a senior research fellow
    at SAIIA and professor in international relations at the London
    School of Economics and Political Science – and his fellow
    authors describe how China’s security presence in Africa has
    been growing. This shift from its erstwhile hands-off attitude
    has brought Beijing closer to the approach of Western powers
    which have been involved far longer in African security. But it
    also caused some disquiet and suspicion among those Western
    powers about China’s designs on the continent, Alden

    Nevertheless, China and Western powers are
    also learning to cohabit in the security domain, most notably
    in Djibouti where China, the US, Japan and European militaries
    are living cheek by jowl in a very small space. This could also
    be a pilot study for security cooperation elsewhere.

    Alden explained how China’s rapidly expanding
    economic involvement in Africa over the past two decades had
    exposed it to the vagaries of African politics, forcing it to
    step up its meagre security presence to protect its businesses
    and its citizens. China began increasing its military footprint
    on African soil in 1998, with a growing endorsement of and
    presence in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

    The book observes how Chinese investment has
    been drawn to war-torn, unstable or fragile states like Sudan,
    which Western companies have mostly shunned; or to countries
    like Angola which have rejected Western donor conditionalities.
    But this has often confronted China with unusual risks.

    Sudan and Darfur, where China has considerable
    oil investments, became a turning point in China’s security
    approach in the early 2000s, Alden said. It took an
    increasingly activist position there, initiating discussion at
    the UN Security Council and even allowing the cases of Sudan’s
    President Omar al-Bashir and others to go to the International
    Criminal Court. It was also motivated by concern about its
    international reputation, especially in the run-up to the 2008
    Beijing Olympics, that its involvement in Sudan could hurt its
    international reputation.

    As South Sudan gained independence in 2011,
    fell out with Khartoum over oil deliveries and later imploded,
    Beijing played an active mediation role. China then contributed
    combat soldiers to the UN peacekeeping mission in the newborn

    And just as Darfur had pushed China into areas
    it hadn’t really expected to enter, so the 2011 crisis in Libya
    – where China also had considerable oil interests – pushed it
    even further along the road of engagement in peace and security
    matters, Alden said.

    China also entered the private security
    domain, rehatting People’s Liberation Army soldiers as private
    security guards to protect some of its larger commercial
    interests. It also increased its support to African Union
    peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. It put combat boots on
    the ground in Mali. And it became involved in the post-civil
    war peace building efforts in Liberia, partly as a result of
    that country shifting diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to
    mainland China.

    China also stepped up its bilateral military
    support in Africa, with training – but also more
    controversially becoming the third-largest provider of small
    arms to Africa. Alden said, though, that Western
    non-governmental organisations were pressuring Beijing to
    reduce those sales as they were fuelling conflict.

    Alden noted that China’s involvement in
    African maritime security had been growing too, starting with
    the Chinese navy’s participation in the international naval
    patrols against Somali pirates in 2008. In 2015 it went further
    by establishing the naval base in Djibouti and then expanding
    its presence there.

    Cobus van Staden of the Wits University media
    studies department told the SAIIA seminar that China’s
    involvement in Africa was increasingly mirroring the robust
    debate in Western societies about exposing soldiers to danger
    in far-off places. After two of its peacekeepers were killed in
    South Sudan and one in Mali last year, there had been an
    outpouring of debate on Chinese social media. Some questioned
    why Chinese soldiers were in those countries at all, while
    others called for an even more aggressive response.

    Van Staden felt the demands by many Chinese
    citizens for revenge in South Sudan and Mali, coming at just
    the time Wolf Warrior 2 became the biggest blockbuster
    in Chinese movie history, expressed the way China was seeing
    its role in the world. That is, as a transnational actor, as
    opposed to the non-interventionist policy of the past, he

    Alden suggested that the lessons China was
    learning in Africa could be applied to Xi’s hugely ambitious
    Belt and Road Initiative, or Silk Road – a development and
    transport corridor linking Beijing with the West. Alden said,
    as in Africa, China’s economic interests in the Silk Road were
    exposing it to political contests and probably the need to
    provide security protection.

    If China’s growing security involvement in
    Africa was changing its fundamental policy of
    non-interventionism, would its growing involvement in
    supporting African elections likewise herald a greater embrace
    of democracy more generally, asked John Stremlau of the Wits
    International Relations Department. He was surprised at China’s
    open support for post-conflict elections in Guinea and
    Madagascar, for instance.

    Alden thought not, saying China still
    preferred the developmental post-conflict peacebuilding model.
    This put the stress on socio-economic reconstruction and
    development over the Western liberal peace building model,
    which emphasised democracy as the foundation for societal
    recovery, he said.

    Nonetheless one can imagine that China’s
    contribution to post-conflict elections in Africa might at
    least begin to introduce some constructive ideological tension
    with its own authoritarianism at home. And incidentally, the
    growing security footprint in Africa of its unquestionable
    friend in Beijing seems to have silenced many African critics
    of Western “imperialism” on the continent.

    Rambo and Feng, arm in arm, stride off into
    the African sunset?

    Peter Fabricius is an ISS

    Photo: Chinese military delegates arrive
    for the closing ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the
    Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People
    (GHOP) in Beijing, China, 24 October 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE/ROMAN