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China’s Response to the Islamist Threat in Mali

Jun 21 , 2013
  • David Shinn

    Adjunct Professor, George Washington University

China has traditionally been relatively passive when it comes to dealing with extremism and terrorism in Africa.  China’s response this year in Mali to earlier Islamist successes, which have at least temporarily been halted by French and African military intervention, suggest that Beijing may in the future pursue a more activist counter-extremism policy. 

Mali has faced a long-standing internal rebellion by the Tuareg people, who demand an independent state of Azawad in the northern part of the country.  Partly as a result of mishandling the Tuareg rebellion, Mali in March 2012 experienced its first coup in 21 years.  Al-Qaeda-linked groups took advantage of the turmoil and effectively hijacked the Tuareg rebellion.  Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which splintered from AQIM, controlled northern Mali by mid-2012. 

Since its independence in 1960, Mali has had cordial diplomatic relations with China.  Mali’s recently deposed president had visited China four times between 2004 and 2010.  President Hu Jintao visited Mali in 2009.  While China-Mali trade is not significant for China, it is important for Mali; China is its largest bilateral trading partner.  China has invested about $50 million in Mali and is a major supplier of aid.  Some 1,500 to 1,800 Chinese nationals reside in Mali.

Following the coup, China called on all parties in Mali to return to normal order and to uphold national unity and stability, a traditional Chinese response to such events.  As the situation quickly worsened, China urged the Economic Community of West African States to lead mediation efforts in Mali, a response that is also in accord with its policy of non-interference in a country’s internal affairs.

By September 2012, there was a change of tone in China’s approach to the deteriorating situation in Mali.  China’s charge d’affaires in the capital of Bamako commented on state television “we are going to bring our assistance to the extent possible, specifically in the military, where we already have a very old cooperation.”  The clear implication was that China was ready to support Mali’s army in its fight against Islamist rebels in northern Mali.  This was in keeping with another Chinese principle: maintaining a country’s sovereign integrity. 

As Islamist forces threatened early in 2013 to take over most of Mali, France launched air strikes against the rebels and quickly followed up by sending troops.  Li Jian and Jin Jing, both researchers at China’s Naval Military Research Institute, in a Global Times commentary on 22 January suggested that France’s intervention in Mali was aimed at controlling gold mines and oil reserves.  They accused France of being “the African gendarme.”  He Wenping, a frequent spokesperson for China on African issues and director of African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned on 23 January that France’s involvement in Mali is risky and that France may be repeating the missteps of the United States in Afghanistan. 

Yun Sun, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, concluded on 23 January that China’s “tepid response” to the French intervention in Mali stems from its concern about potential abuse of the UN mandate as happened in Libya.  She argued that China believes French intervention is a “dangerous challenge” to Beijing’s non-interference principle.

By 29 January, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson outlined an African-focused approach to Mali.  He said China will support the International Support Mission for Mali, provide humanitarian aid and called for the early implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2085, which emphasizes political dialogue and deployment of an African-led force to respond to the security threat.  China also pledged $1 million in cash for the African Union and “some other material” valued up to $5 million.  These steps follow traditional Chinese policy.

On 30 January, the same He Wenping who was critical of France’s policy a week earlier stated in an interview that no Chinese officials have opposed France’s intervention in Mali.  She added “I think the French military intervention was necessary . . . because the situation was very urgent; militias in the north of Mali were attacking strategic strongholds not far from the capital city of Bamako.”  This statement of support for French military intervention in Mali was surprising compared to earlier comments and previous Chinese policy on Western military intervention in Africa.

After French and African troops pushed the Islamist forces out of most of northern Mali, China stepped up its engagement.  In a major speech on 13 May on terrorism in Africa at the UN Security Council, Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said that the fight against terrorism in Africa should not be fought by the African countries alone.  While the international community should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries under threat, it should help African countries build their capacity in the fight against terrorism.  He added that China “resolutely supports” African countries and their regional organizations in the fight against terrorism. 

Within two weeks of Li Baodong’s remarks, China offered to contribute as many as 600 troops, including a civil engineering company, to the UN peacekeeping force being assembled in Mali to replace the French force.  It will incorporate those African troops already in Mali.  So far, all Chinese peacekeepers assigned to UN operations in Africa have been non-combat troops, usually engineering, medical and logistical forces.  China has not ruled out the sending of combat troops to the operation in Mali. 

In just over a year, China has gone from a position of avoiding engagement to counter African extremist challenges to one of accepting French military intervention and then offering to contribute troops to a UN peacekeeping operation that includes in its mandate “steps to prevent the return of armed elements” to northern Mali.  This begs the question whether China’s response in Mali portends a more activist approach to countering extremism elsewhere.

David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His 37-year Foreign Service career included ambassadorships in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.  He is the coauthor of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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