China’s emphasis on the sanctity of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries dates back to the Indian-Chinese Trading Treaty signed in 1954. The Asian-African conference at Bandung the following year incorporated these concepts into the “Ten Principles of Bandung” and they have been repeated ever since by China. In Africa, except for a number of aberrations during the 1960s when China supported revolutionary movements against independent African governments, Beijing has generally adhered to these principles.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, there has been a slow evolution of China’s policy on non-interference and non-intervention. This is playing out as China’s presence and engagement has grown significantly in Africa’s 54 countries. China has diplomatic relations with 50 of these countries and an embassy in all 50 except Somalia. In 2009, China passed the United States as Africa’s leading bilateral trading partner and has subsequently widened the gap. In recent years, China has possibly become Africa’s largest source of annual foreign direct investment and it is an important provider of aid. An estimated one to two million people of Chinese origin now live or work in Africa. As a result, Chinese nationals and interests increasingly must deal with African conflicts and confront hostile groups. In recent years, Chinese personnel have experienced kidnappings, killings and/or evacuations in Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Libya.
The evolution of China’s non-interference policy began in the mid-1990s with active engagement in UN peacekeeping operations. In Africa today, China has about 2,000 peacekeepers assigned to seven UN operations, more than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. This includes 356 non-combat personnel in South Sudan and 233 in Sudan’s Darfur region. Since 2008, China has also been an active participant in the Somali anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, providing on a rotating basis two frigates and a supply ship. In 2013, China agreed to send troops to the peacekeeping operation in Mali where it now has more than 400 engineering and medical personnel and a small contingent of its first combat troops assigned to a UN peacekeeping mission. All of these activities are sanctioned by African host governments and the international community.
China has shown increasing “flexibility” in its UN Security Council votes on African issues that impact an African country’s sovereignty. In 1992, while it did not join the international coalition aimed at providing security for humanitarian organizations that were trying to end a famine, it supported the UN enabling resolution authorizing military force because this was “an exceptional action” and “unique situation.” The initial U.S.-led military coalition and subsequent UN peacekeeping operation had broad support among African governments and there was no functioning Somali government at the time to oppose the operation. As the mission in Mogadishu moved from ending a famine to fighting with Somali warlords, China became increasingly critical and abstained on subsequent resolutions aimed at broadening the mandate of the UN mission.
In 2011, Libya presented a more complicated situation for China, which evacuated 36,000 Chinese personnel from the country as the government began to unravel. UN Security Council resolution 1970 imposed an arms embargo on Libya and a travel ban on members of the al-Qadhafi family. The resolution had strong support among Arab League members. China supported the resolution, taking into account the special circumstances in Libya. China subsequently abstained on UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized a “no fly” zone over Libya. China’s ambassador to the United Nations commented that China had serious concerns over some elements of the resolution and expressed the need to respect “sovereignty, independence, unification and territorial integrity of Libya.”
Nevertheless, China did not veto the resolution and its abstention took place when al-Qadhafi was still in power. This was the first time the Security Council authorized the use of force under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine without the consent of the impacted state. China subsequently criticized the NATO implementation of the no fly zone as going beyond the intent of resolution 1973.
China’s policy in Sudan and South Sudan offers the strongest evidence of a change in its approach to non-interference in Africa. The China National Petroleum Corporation has a 40 percent stake in the consortium that developed Sudan’s oil sector. Chinese companies built the pipelines, oil terminal and most of the oil infrastructure for the industry. At the peak of Sudan’s production, China obtained about 5 percent of its imported oil there. China is also one of the principal suppliers of arms to Sudan.
China’s first challenge was responding to the crisis in Darfur, which resulted in growing Western and some African criticism of the Omar al-Bashir government in Khartoum, a regime with which China had close relations. Initially, China supported Khartoum in opposing both a UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur and the desire by most southern Sudanese to hold a referendum on possible secession. China abstained on a series of UN resolutions calling for sanctions against Khartoum. By late 2006, however, with an eye on holding a successful Olympics in Beijing, China began methodically to change its position on Darfur. In 2007, China’s ambassador to the United Nations announced that China had told Sudan to accept the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. The ambassador added that China “never twists arms,” but Sudan “got the message.”
Sudan subsequently allowed South Sudan to hold a referendum on secession. The South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for independence. The division of the country meant that about 75 percent of the known oil reserves went with South Sudan and 25 percent and the oil infrastructure remained with Khartoum. Although China had foreseen this outcome and improved its relations with South Sudan, it complicated its oil interests as periodic conflict between Sudan and South Sudan continued. At the end of 2013, virtual civil war broke out within South Sudan, further threatening Chinese oil interests and complicating Chinese policy in the two Sudans.
The conflcit in South Sudan has become enormously frustrating for China. Not only has much of the oil production shut down for a second time since South Sudan’s secession, but China had to evacuate some of its oil production personnel for safety reasons. China’s foreign minister is engaging both sides in the internal conflict in efforts to end the conflict. Its special envoy for Africa, Zhong Jianhua, has offered to mediate the conflict, adding that “China should be engaging more in peace and security solutions for any conflict there.” China reportedly is in discussion with the UN about adding combat troops to its contingent with the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. Although it is not taking the lead, China is playing an unusually active diplomatic role in the South Sudan conflict.
And this brings us to Nigeria and the recent abduction of some 300 school girls. During a visit to Nigeria, Premier Li Keqiang said China will make intelligence available to Nigeria’s security agencies and provide training of its military personnel for anti-insurgency operations. While this does not violate China’s non-intervention policy, it does underscore a growing level of engagement in conflict situations.
During the past two decades, China has demonstrated a greater willingness to allow non-African governments to engage directly in African conflict situations. In most cases, the targeted country concurs with the intervention or, as in the case of Somalia, no government existed at the time of the intervention. In those cases where China either supports or allows others to intervene, it tends to concur on the basis of responsibility to protect. China is also much more likely to approve intervention if regional organizations such as the African Union or Arab League concur. Nevertheless, the evidence is compelling that China’s interpretation of state sovereignty and non-intervention in African conflict situations is evolving.
David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, co-author of “China and Africa: A Century of Engagement”, and former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.