China has become the second-largest economy in terms of GDP with the largest total trade volume. China has also become a major economic partner of African countries. Accordingly, the talk about and expectation for China to play a bigger role in regional security issues are quite reasonable — despite different points of view and even some criticism. But I would argue that China’s contribution in African security issues is under-recognized while its future role is over-expected.
There are two kinds of categorizations about engagements in security areas. The West would like to narrowly categorize security contribution only as military intervention. Though military means might be necessary in some cases, security issues should be addressed by broad means. Economic and diplomatic means are actually of special significance in addressing security issues.
The last decades have seen China participate more and more in security governance in Africa. China has been a major contributor of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. According to statistics, China by the end of 2015 had dispatched approximately 30 thousand peacekeeping troops under the UN framework. China is the very country that has dispatched the largest number of peacekeeping troops among the P5. China’s financial contribution amounted to 6.64% of the total budget of UN peacekeeping missions, making the country the sixth-largest contributor. China’s engineering teams have constructed and reconstructed 11,000 kilometers of roads and more than 300 bridges, removed more than 9,400 mines and other types of explosive devices, provided more than 149,000 medical treatments, and transported more than 1.1 million tons of materials and equipment.
Though more accurate statistics for China’s peacekeeping mission in Africa are not available, it is known that a big proportion of the missions had actually been conducted in Africa. For instance, by the end of 2015, China had provided troops for 7 missions of all the 9 UN missions. They are MINUSMA (Mali), UNMISS (South Sudan), MONUSCO (Democratic Republic of Congo), UNAMID (Darfur), UNOCI (Cote Devoir), UNMIL (Liberia) and MINUSCA (Central Africa) respectively.
It is also Africa that has witnessed the transformation of China’s peacekeeping mission. Before 2012, China’s participation was mainly in providing logistic support. In 2013, China provided security forces for the first time in a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. In 2014, China dispatched infantry troops as peacekeepers for the first time, for a UN mission in South Sudan.
Since 2008, China has dispatched ships to combat Somali pirates under the UN framework.
China has also actively participated in security issues by diplomatic means. China appointed a special envoy for African affairs in 2007. Since then, China’s envoys have visited and mediated between several conflicting parties. In Sudan’s case, the mediation was very effective all through the process from the formerly unified Sudan’s domestic crisis through South Sudan’s internal tensions. China’s FM Wang Yi also chaired a discussion on South Sudan’s peace process in January 1, 2015.
As a major economic partner, China also contributed to African security by economic means. Weak economies are always among the reasons behind the conflicts. China’s economic relations with African countries served to maintain a minimal level of stability, or at least prevented the tensions from getting worse. But unfortunately, economic relations are not proportionately recognized as effective means to address security issues.
All in all, China has played a significant role in maintaining security in Africa by different means. By economic cooperation, China in particular has been a factor in preventing the region’s security situation from deteriorating.
The future will certainly see China’s increasing engagement in security issues. The Declaration of the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in December 2015 stated that China will support the building of a collective security mechanism in Africa, and jointly manage non-traditional security issues and global challenges such as, but not limited to, food security, energy security, cyber security, climate change, biodiversity conservation, major communicable diseases and transnational crimes.
While China will continuously support Africa in building security by aforementioned means, China will hopefully increase its efforts in helping African countries building its own capacity in dealing with security matters.
As President Xi Jinping promised on security cooperation, China will provide a total of 60 million U.S. dollars in free aid to the African Union to support the building and operation of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crisis.
Worthy of special mentioning, China’s practice in supporting Africa’s security governance is quite different from that of the West. China would like to conduct military actions under the UN framework rather than unilaterally; China would like to support African countries in building their own capacity rather than do it by itself; China clearly opined that security issues should be addressed through dialogue and negations rather than by military means. China also regards economic development as the fundamental way to reduce conflicts and tensions.
It is always predicted and even expected that China will get directly involved militarily. But China is least likely to take that path. It is because China strongly adheres to the principle of non-interference, and China also assumes that external intervention often becomes part of the problem rather than a solution to the problem.