The Chinese Military in Africa

July 6, 2020

Ana-Maria Baloi

Why does this matter


  • Traditionally China does not deploy troops outside its region. However, the country’s ambition to become a global power has determined its leadership to reconsider the long-established Chinese military taught.
  • China is already Africa’s biggest trading partner. The country relies heavily on its soft power to increase its influence on the continent, mainly by sponsoring infrastructure and technological projects.
  • Lately, China has adopted a new approach, projecting in Africa military force as well. The Djibouti military base is China’s first such facility abroad, while the Chinese troops participating in MINUSMA are the country’s first deployment on another continent.
  • China is highly likely to increase its military presence in Africa due to regional competition with the US, Russia and Turkey. This move would reveal a rethinking of China’s strategic goals outside its traditional sphere of influence – East Asia.


The Chinese Traditional Military Taught


Throughout its history, China avoided projecting force outside East Asia, a region it always considered its sphere of influence by right. However, in the 1990s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) witnessed two demonstrations of U.S. military power in its hemisphere: The Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Astonished by the technological advancements made by the U.S. military, China acknowledged its unpreparedness to wage a modern war and prevent foreign powers from intervening in its region.


Although steps were taken since then to adopt the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the new international context, major breakthroughs were made during the 2000s. Defence spending was significantly increased, new weapons developed, while China adopted an even more assertive position in the South China Sea. Now the CCP is looking to strengthen defence engagement with African countries, adding to its economic and commercial profile on the continent.



Current Missions


China contributes around 2,200 peacekeepers to missions all over the world. To put that into perspective, that accounts for more than all the other four permanent security council members combined. The Chinese peacekeepers are working in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Cyprus and Lebanon. In general, these missions have traditionally focused on support functions, with most of the personnel being doctors or engineers, rather than combat troops.


In late 2013, Beijing deployed troops overseas for the first time to serve in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This represents an indicator of China’s increasingly assertive role in conflicts around the world. As for now, Chinese troops in Mali are patrolling and conducting security operations in the north-eastern city of Gao, highly affected by a violent insurgency. One impediment for the Chinese troops to work with other nations is their lack of personnel speaking English or French. Therefore, little direct interaction with the locals or the other forces stationed there takes place.


In August 2017, China opened its first military base in Djibouti. In the early 2000s, the Chinese naval port calls far from China were rare. Whereas today, Chinese ships regularly visit foreign ports, and China has dispatched 26 escort taskforces to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden — and to stretch the PLA Navy’s capabilities. The PLAN now has its permanent support base overseas to resupply and repair Chinese ships operating in the region. It is situated close to Camp Lemonnier, the US operated base.


The Chinese detachment is composed of a 071-type amphibious assault ship, and a semi-submersible support ship. Chinese naval ships already visit the port an average of four times a year, and this will only increase as China expands its far-seas maritime operations. Despite claims that the base was not built for military purposes, satellite images confirm that deep berths are meant for warships. Djibouti also hosts military bases belonging to the US, France, Italy and Japan.


Upcoming Projects


The Chinese government is working to transform the PLA into a top-tier force within thirty years. With a budget that has soared over the past decade, the Chinese forces already rank among the world’s leading militaries in areas including artificial intelligence and anti-ship ballistic missiles.


Former AFRICOM commander Thomas Waldhauser stated that China is currently working with other African countries to build new military bases. The strategic character of the location will be given by the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative as the route will need to be secured.  One of the countries believed to be the next location for a Chinese military base is Namibia, although considerable information points to Sao Tome and Principe as well, in the Gulf of Guinea.


China pledged to Sao Tome and Principe $146 million for the modernization of its International Airport and the construction of a deep-sea container port, which could serve as a logistics hub for Chinese exports to Central Africa. This promise was made after the tiny archipelago country ended its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in December 2016. This is China’s requirement when making major investments in Africa.


In Tanzania, China built a complex designed to train local armed forces earlier this year. During the China-Africa Defence and Security Forum in July 2019, China announced it will provide African countries with comprehensive support on matters such as piracy and counterterrorism. That includes providing technologies, equipment, personnel and strategic advice.



Motivations & Regional Implications  


Sending Chinese troops overseas in peacekeeping missions is a new step in China’s strategic approach for the 21stcentury. It allows China to be seen as an active and assertive player on the global stage while giving Chinese troops the opportunity to gain operational experience in different environments. This way the PLA can also observe the tactics of other international forces operating in the same area. With the US, Russian and Turkish forces involved in different conflicts across Africa, China feels the need to enhance its presence, moving towards a more assertive approach.


The U.N. usually requires peacekeepers to come from countries with little interest in the conflict in order to ensure impartiality. China, although claiming to be neutral, has a growing interest in the political dynamics in Africa. In Liberia for example, Chinese peacekeepers were deployed only after Liberia agreed to cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The majority of Chinese deployments go to African countries where Chinese companies are increasingly investing in infrastructure and natural resources.


The most controversial of these deployments is the continued presence of Chinese forces in South Sudan. These troops are a contingent of the joint U.N. and African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID. But China is a close ally of South Sudan, with strong trade and military ties. The South Sudanese military depends on imports of Chinese arms and munitions. Chinese companies have invested heavily in South Sudan’s oil industry, including wells and refineries in Darfur.

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