China backs economic power with political muscle in Africa
Long-held policy of non-interference tested in pursuit of resources.
One of the two Chinese peacekeepers killed in South Sudan last year was a former cucumber farmer from Sichuan province, the other a husband and father from Shandong.
When they were killed on patrol near a refugee camp in Juba, capital of the world’s newest country, there was a small eruption on Chinese social media, where some commentators vented frustration at their country’s increasing involvement in distant lands. “Fight those who have injured us, don’t just condemn,” wrote one.
China has 750 peacekeepers in South Sudan and more than 2,000 in Africa as a whole, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia — a bigger deployment than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. That Beijing has been willing to put lives at risk so far afield shows how its economic ambitions have morphed into political involvement, straining a decades-old strategy of non-interference in foreign affairs.
“This non-interference policy is being severely tested, especially when it comes to natural resources,” says Peter Biar Ajak, founder of an independent think-tank in Juba. So far, he says, China’s policy in South Sudan has been “largely about keeping the oil flowing”.
Before South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, Beijing dealt exclusively with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. “When we were one country we saw China playing an unhelpful role, supporting the Khartoum government and making things difficult for a peace deal to be implemented or for us to hold our referendum on independence,” Mr Ajak says.
But when independence became a reality, Beijing changed tack, as most of the oil reserves were in the south. Since then, he says, China has played an active role in shuttle diplomacy, first to negotiate new pipeline fees for oil to pass through Sudan and subsequently to intervene in the civil war in South Sudan, which hampered oil flows and forced millions from their homes.
“[China’s] degree of involvement in South Sudan would have been beyond imagination even a few years ago,” say Yanmei Xie and Casie Copeland in a study published by the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “Beijing has charted a middle path, maintaining the broad non-interference principle while stretching its interpretation and experimenting with new ways of applying it.”
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, China has gradually given up a non-interference policy that it had formally adhered to for more than 50 years. Beijing has under Mr Xi established a naval base on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, passed a law allowing stationing of soldiers abroad and strengthened its influence in the East China and South China Seas.
“For many decades, China insisted one of it is differences from foreign military powers was that it did not base its forces on foreign soil,” says Dennis Wilder, a former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia now teaching at Georgetown University. “China has recognised that in order to protect its interests abroad it, like other major world powers, needs forward deployed forces to react to contingencies.”
The greater political involvement abroad has accompanied an increase in Chinese investment — from $2.7bn of foreign investments in 2002 to $170bn last year, many in risky countries.
Beijing has also changed how it does business, moving away from a traditional reluctance to deal with any actors but the central government. Most large Chinese investment takes place through government-to-government agreements, notes Michael Humphreys, Beijing representative for Control Risks, the consultancy.
“The Chinese assume that everything overseas is like in China — the central government will make things happen for you,” he says. “The problem is that most of the operational authority to make the project happen doesn’t exist at central government level, they exist at provincial or local or even tribal level. Subgovernment is where they get into trouble.”
Getting it wrong can be costly, China launched large-scale evacuations from 10 countries between 2006 and 2011 because of riots and wars, according to the ICG study.
During the 2011 Libya civil war, for example, China remained close to Muammer Gaddafi even after most others judged his position untenable. Beijing failed to build bridges with the opposition fast enough. Chinese companies had $18bn of infrastructure projects damaged in the fighting and were cut out of post-Gaddafi business deals. Chinese oil imports from Libya have plummeted.
“Libya focused the attention of Chinese foreign policy decision makers and thinkers and sharpened the debate on the contours of non-interference,” writes Ms Xie, now an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.
The perils of focusing exclusively on the central government were demonstrated by the Sudanese civil war and the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
Luke Patey, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, says Beijing’s policy of dealing only with Khartoum backfired. “Oil revenues in Sudan reinforced longstanding practices of economic mismanagement, political patronage, militarisation and corruption of the Sudanese elite in Khartoum and oil companies became the targets for disenfranchised groups,” he argues in a forthcoming article.
One scholar quoted by the study said Beijing could afford an element of “trial and error” in its interventions in Africa because — complaints about the peacekeepers’ deaths on social media aside — the continent is less subject to nationalist passions than places closer to home, including Myanmar or the South China Sea.
Jing Gu, director of the Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development at Sussex university in the UK, agrees that Africa has provided China with a testing ground for both military engagement and diplomacy.
“Africa is an important continent for China in terms of its involvement in international peacekeeping missions,” she says, adding that it is in Africa where China has started to “project itself as a responsible great power”.