2 August 2018
China’s engagement with Africa has long been shaped by its foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In its interactions with African states, China constantly reiterates its respect for state sovereignty – at every Forum on China-Africa Cooperation since 2000, this theme is repeated and given legitimacy alongside calls for more economic cooperation.
However, as China gets more deeply and extensively engaged in Africa, this non-interference policy is adapting to new realities.
During the 2000s, China was largely involved in traditional peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions. In 2013, however, China deployed combat troops for the first time in its history in Mali. Its extensive economic investments have brought about the need to protect those investments and ensure the security and political stability of host countries.
Because of the need for China to protect its oil interests in places like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, what used to be a singular focus on business ventures is now being mixed with a security presence.
It is difficult for China, for example, to be neutral in the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. It is in fact accused of playing a double game in the war, by calling for a diplomatic settlement and a United Nations peace-keeping role while at the same time heavily arming President Salva Kiir’s troops. By 2014, it is claimed, China was transferring weapons worth tens of millions of dollars to the incumbent regime of President Kiir. This shows that China is intervening in the South Sudan civil war to protect its vast oil investments in the country.
China faces its greatest dilemmas in deciding whether to intervene in the internal conflicts of resource-rich states such as South Sudan, the Congo, Guinea, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Ordinarily, China finds it hard to insulate itself from the existing domestic African disputes prevalent in these countries. The need to be in the good graces of the host country often has China supporting the incumbent regime by supplying it arms, and thereby diluting its non-interference policy.
It could even be argued that China’s arms supply relationship with the incumbent regimes in South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo and others, is a form of interference in the internal conflicts of these countries. The weapons transferred are used to crush the opposition to incumbent regimes. China reportedly supplied the former Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe with instruments of opposition control, such as radio-jamming equipment to disrupt opposition party broadcasts and riot control equipment to suppress protests and demonstrations.
China’s policy of non-conditional arms sales to Africa has implicated it in human rights atrocities in Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, Liberia, and Zimbabwe, among others. China has also been willing to provide weapons to incumbent regimes in their battles against insurgents, as it did in the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria as early as 2006. Maintaining the illusion of non-interference will only get harder as China’s economic interests and economic entanglements continue to grow in the continent. Beijing has come to realise that economic and political issues are at times inextricably intertwined.
China is adapting to the threats of piracy, terrorism and civil war in Africa, as well as to the impact of these threats on its economic interests. In April 2016, China began constructing its first ever overseas military base on the coast of Djibouti. The obvious reason is to enable China to expand its reach and protect its ever-growing economic investments in Africa with a military presence.
This means that the traditional position of China being in Africa solely for business, or the idea that it does not mix business with politics, is steadily giving way to a China more willing to intervene militarily in Africa’s domestic conflicts. For Chinese leaders determined to maintain the myth of non-interference in the developing world, Africa is likely to be a growing source of frustration.