Africa’s former colonial rulers are engaged in a delicate dance as China encroaches on its military dominance of the continent.
Talk of “partnerships” and “co-operation“ for the general benefit of African nations marks the discourse, though there has been little direct engagement between Sino and European Union forces.
With China “reinterpreting” its noninterference policy as its economic investment in the region increases and EU defence policy repositioning itself in relation to the Trump presidency in the United States, both desire stability in Africa.
EU member states have had a long history within Africa. Stemming from colonial times, these relations have morphed into long-term diplomatic ties. Some see it as a protection of economic interests and resources or a fight against migration and terrorism, rather than a simple desire for development and stability. In current times, more attention has been focused on military intervention, peacekeeping and training.
Although the EU has about eight missions in Africa, including the military missions in Mali, Somali, Niger and Central African Republic (CAR), there’s a new power on the block. China, most commonly providing infrastructure aid to Africa, is now more than ever engaging in United Nations missions, particularly for the stabilisation of Mali, South Sudan and Sudan.
Unlike the EU’s, all of China’s military missions in Africa involve the UN. Of the nine peacekeeping operations in Africa, China is involved in seven of them, more than any other UN Security Council member.
Researchers and journalists have speculated that this increased Chinese military presence may present a threat to the long-standing historical relations between the EU and African states. But a European External Action Service (EEAS) official says African states take a more positive view of China’s increased presence. The EEAS is “not looking at China’s interests from a rivalry perspective, more from a partnership perspective, to see what can be done. We look at it from a perspective of how we can work together with international partners on specific issues, for the benefit of Africa.”
The EU says it welcomes China’s increased engagement in UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, since “we can’t be the only security provider when a crisis occurs”.
A University of Kent lecturer in international security, Toni Haastrup, believes there is space for the EU and China to co-operate in regional solutions in Africa, though whether they will actually do it is another question. “The Africans can only benefit from it [co-operation],” Haastrup says, adding that it makes sense to deal with China and the EU as one, “instead of a dividing and conquering situation”.
“Of course, if you think you can get money, or aid, or support from different types of actors then of course you want to exploit that, but it’s not very effective with actually dealing with the security challenges of the continent,” she says.
The EU is now putting more effort into defence. The European Commission has proposed the creation of an EU defence union because of US president elect Donald Trump, who has an unsavoury view of Nato. Future EU budgets will also look to set aside money for research, internal troop movements, the establishment of multinational forces and EU headquarters.
Haastrup says this shift in security and defence policy is becoming more about Europe combating terrorism, for example, and less about the security of other regions, such as Africa.
China is also increasing its focus on defence and it has announced it will build a “support facility” in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa that already hosts American and French military bases. Beijing has been careful not to refer to the facility as a military base and is defensive when the international media do so.
Semantics aside, the facility in Djibouti will make it easier to deploy troops when necessary, whether it is about providing training when Africa requests it or whether it is to protect Chinese economic interests and its citizens.
“When you build a military base, you’re saying you see security in a very specific way, which is militarised,” Haastrup says.
The deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations Asia and China Programme, Mathieu Duchâtel, doesn’t believe China is overstepping its foreign policy of noninterference and no military bases, at least not yet.
“What China is doing is reinterpreting the limits of the noninterference principle, in the sense of greater engagement, but so far it hasn’t been interfering in internal affairs of the state in the region,” Duchâtel says. But the core of China’s involvement in Africa still lies with UN peacekeeping operations. “Europe needs to take stock of this changing reality and China should not be ignored. It’s a major player in African security.”
But when it comes to concrete examples of co-operation between the two power blocs, they are limited.
So what is standing in the way? China places fewer conditions on support than the EU does. The EU requires an adherence to human rights and rule of law, which, Haastrup says, favours China, which gives African elites easier access to aid.
Amnesty International’s researcher on military and policing issues, Patrick Wilcken, says adherence to the rule of law is an obstacle to co-operation. China is exporting more and more sophisticated arms around the world, and it is notoriously opaque about it
“China often doesn’t have very rigorous controls on who it’s sending arms to and it doesn’t explicitly take human rights concerns into consideration when agreeing arms deals,” Wilcken says.
Chinese weapons have been found throughout Africa, often coming out of South Sudan and illicitly sold on or trafficked. If the arms trade is not monitored, it is easy for any side of a conflict to get their hands on the arms, which then undermines peacekeeping and military missions.
“Clearly [this] is undermining peace and security and causes extremely serious human rights violations on all sides,” Wilcken says.
Another obstacle to co-operation is citizen interest. As Duchâtel says, even Chinese citizens don’t favour their state’s investment in Africa.
“The government thinks that the population dislikes this aspect of foreign policy because they have their own development problems inside China, and public money is directed to the development of a third state,” Duchâtel says.
Furthermore, it’s not just the EU that may have an issue with China’s less strict human rights record. The editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council report, Liesl Louw, says it’s African citizens too. “Ordinary Africans that are fighting for their human rights, democracy and free elections might have another opinion,” Louw says.
Having external military powers in Africa and the possibility of co-operation also becomes about how Africans can best use what these external actors can bring. African states can say: “EU, you’re not the only game in town”. But also, “China, we have worked with the EU quite well in certain aspects”.
In the future, there will be more players rather than less and, if there is co-operation, it should be on Africans’ terms.
The AU is saying it needs more than military training missions. “It’s fine to train armies but, if they don’t have any capacity in terms of aeroplanes etcetera, it’s hardly worth it,” Louw says.
The AU needs funding, such as assessed contributions by the UN, ensuring a steady stream of money for its own missions. This would enable its efforts not to be so ad hoc.
“What is really happening is, China says, ‘oh, we’ll give you a million dollars for this’, then someone else comes up and says, ‘we’ll give you a few planes, or lend you some for something else’. So the AU can’t make long-term plans,” Louw adds.
“In the short term, any money will be welcome,” she says, and support through military co-operation could bring benefits. It would ensure each side isn’t so focused on their own vested interests, for instance on oil and easing the flow of migration, and therefore have a joint effort and focus of money where Africa needs it most.
If the hurdles such as China’s poor track record of regulating arms sales and human rights abuses are reigned in, co-operation is possible. As an EEAS official says: “A more stable Africa means a more prosperous Africa, which is in the interest of them but also for both China and Europe.”