There are reasons to think that Africa may be a place where prospects of Sino-European cooperation are promising. EU members – and above all France – continue to play an active role in crisis management in weak African states like Mali, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. China’s increasing investments on the continent have made it increasingly sensitive to African security issues, even if Western analysts argue that Beijing pays too little heed to human rights abuses and wars like the one in Darfur.
China’s increasing investments on the continent have made it increasingly sensitive to African security issues.
China has deployed a growing number of peacekeepers in UN missions across Africa – it now boasts more personnel in blue helmets than any other permanent member of the Security Council. In the past, Beijing has mainly sent engineers, medics and other non-combat troops to Africa, but this is changing. It has an infantry company in Mali and is deploying a full battalion to South Sudan. Emphasizing the potential for Sino-European cooperation, the contingent in Mali is based alongside a Dutch unit. China is looking at sending military helicopters to serve with the UN in Côte d’Ivoire, where France also keeps troops, and is assisting in the battle against Ebola.
So far, so positive. But do these deployments really matter to China? I recently attended two conferences in Beijing that offered distinctly different answers to that.
One was at the Chinese defense ministry’s peacekeeping school, an impressive complex nestled in hills outside the city, complete with a mocked-up UN base and other training facilities. The school hosted this year’s edition of the International Forum on the Challenges of Peace Operations, an annual event for officials and experts working on blue helmet missions. A series of Chinese officials gave detailed and direct presentations about their growing interest in peacekeeping and willingness to contribute more, while citing new threats to their personnel in Africa.
One senior military man explained that the Chinese unit there had encountered frequent attacks, ranging from civilians hurling rocks to insurgents firing bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades at their camp. No Chinese peacekeeper has died in Mali yet, but over thirty soldiers from other countries have. Despite these dangers, there was a sense that Beijing will stick with the UN and try to boost its forces. If European powers are willing to do more to empower peacekeeping Africa, it was tempting to conclude, this should be a fruitful area for positive dealings with China.
Despite these dangers, there was a sense that Beijing will stick with the UN and try to boost its forces.
Returning to Beijing proper for the ECFR/Institute of Strategic Studies (Peking University) conference on China and crisis management sponsored by Norway’s embassy in Beijing, I drew less optimistic conclusions. Chinese speakers expounded frankly on their national interests vis-à-vis Japan, Russia, and the United States. Some even generously treated Europe as a strategically significant entity but only for the long term. A number of speakers also noted the importance of the UN, and UN reform, to maintaining great power relationships.
But Africa and peacekeeping barely got a look in. Placed alongside the first-order questions of the South China Sea or Sino-Russian ties, China’s interests in Africa suddenly look quite marginal. Cooperation through the UN in cases like Mali and Sudan may be tactically useful for Beijing, but it is not really strategically important.
There are still good reasons for Europeans to devote some energy and resources to African security issues. As I warned the pro-peacekeeping participants at the Challenges Forum, the spate of attacks on the Chinese troops in Mali is no accident.
It is part of a “complex pattern of violence and disruption with the potential to undermine the entire peacekeeping enterprise”.
Instead, it is part of a “complex pattern of violence and disruption with the potential to undermine the entire peacekeeping enterprise” as an ugly mélange of Islamist extremists, abusive governments and violent militias targetting the UN in cases from West Africa to Darfur, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a worst-case scenario, these attacks could precipitate a “dark time” for peacekeeping similar to the years following the disasters of Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s.
But addressing this threat may only pay limited dividends in diplomacy with Beijing. Chinese policy-makers still see operations such as the French interventions in Mali and CAR as quasi-imperialistic ventures. Beijing has intimate relations with many African governments, and hardly needs EU members to mediate with them. A bit of cooperation here and there in Mali or South Sudan is all well and good, but China will judge European powers on what they do (or cannot do) about Asian crises.
 ECFR organised a seminar with the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) of Peking University on 14-15 October 2014, which was made possible by a grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beijing.
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