Wang Yi, the eighth-ranked member of China’s State Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs was back in Africa in January, barely two months after joining African leaders at the 8th Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit held in Dakar, Senegal towards the end of November 2021. The visit marked a 32-year tradition of Chinese leaders making Africa the first overseas trip of the New Year. Peace and security were high on his agenda, marked by among other things the announcement that China would appoint a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa and work towards a Regional Peace Conference.
China has indicated that it will appoint a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa and work towards a Regional Peace Conference @hmryder @OvigweEgueguTweet
This designee will join an expanding team of Africa-focused envoys including the Special Representative for African Affairs, Ambassador Xu Jinghu, Wu Peng, the Director General for Africa in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Liu Yuxi, China’s Ambassador to the African Union, and a pool of Chinese envoys accredited to Africa’s Regional Economic Communities.
All this builds on a series of diplomatic moves in recent years that have seen China playing a mediation role in Darfur, Sudan in 2007, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda in 2008, South Sudan since 2013, and Djibouti in 2017. During the 8th FOCAC in Senegal, Senegalese foreign minister, Aïssata Tall Sall, pushed for more Chinese security engagement by urging Wang Yi to strengthen China’s role in counter-terrorism in the Sahel. Minister Sall said, “We would like China’s influence to be a strong voice in support of Senegal and all the countries involved in the problem of insecurity in the Sahel, so that our forces there have even more legal means to fight against terrorists and irredentism, and we hope that China will accompany us.”
Military and police cooperation, counter-terrorism, and law enforcement are listed as strategic priorities in the 42-page Dakar China/Africa Action Plan 2022-2024 that lays out a series of planned engagements in nine strategic areas. “The two sides will lay special emphasis on defence and military capabilities and actively conduct exchanges and cooperation in fields such as military education, military training, military medicine, logistics support, and maritime security,” the document reads.
Peace and security were not initially on FOCAC’s agenda when it started in 2000. While African countries pushed for this, their Chinese partners were hesitant. China was then new to international security, with only 52 personnel deployed in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations, no naval presence outside the Western Pacific, and minor representation in UN bodies. China was largely absent in the processes leading to the founding of the African Union (AU) in 2001, a sharp contrast with the robust role it played in the formation of its predecessor, the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) in 1963.
Today, the picture looks very different. Since 2008, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA’s) naval task forces have been on continuous deployment in the Gulf of Aden on international counter-piracy missions. Between 2003 and 2017, China was engaged in mediating 15 conflict situations globally, including seven in Africa.
It is currently actively involved in crisis management in Sudan and South Sudan. Peace and security were incorporated into FOCAC in 2012. By 2020, China was contributing more troops to UN missions than other members on the UN Security Council. China has created new UN bodies like the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund consisting of the Secretary General’s Peace and Security Sub-Fund and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Sub-Fund.
China is the second largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and the overall UN budget after the United States (U.S). Chinese diplomats head four of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies and there is speculation that China is angling for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which French nationals have led for over two decades.
Africa brought serious equities to the table in helping China develop its international peacekeeping credentials. African countries contribute around 48 percent of the UN’s 90,000 uniformed peacekeepers and an additional 50,000 for AU missions, way above the 2,400 troops China maintains. China learned a lot from all this experience, so-much-so that it felt confident enough to raise a force of 8,000 peacekeepers and place it at the UN’s disposal for rapid deployment to crisis zones in 2017.
Military and police cooperation, counter-terrorism, and law enforcement are listed as strategic priorities in the Dakar China/Africa Action Plan 2022-2024 @hmryder @OvigweEgueguTweet
In general, Africans tend to view China as a positive force. The latest round of Afrobarometer surveys conducted in 34 African countries in 2019/2021 found that one in six Africans welcomed Chinese engagement. While these surveys do not gauge attitudes concerning China’s role in peace and stability, the anecdotal evidence suggests that China is largely viewed as a constructive actor.
Numerous events in the run-up to the 8th FOCAC meeting offer a glimpse into what Africans are thinking. On 22 July 2021, the international NGO, Crisis Action brought together South Sudanese civil society and academics, AU officials, and African and Chinese scholars to discuss China’s role in re-energising the peace process in South Sudan. The main takeaways were that China was delicately poised to make a modest, yet important difference through 1) Ongoing deployments to the UN Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) that is mandated to observe the security arrangements and protect civilians, 2) Prior experience in bringing the warring parties to the table, 3) High-level access to the conflicting parties, and 4) Investments in economic reconstruction and development.
A core tenant of Chinese foreign policy is centred on distance from the internal political affairs of the state it is engaging with. The abovementioned interventions were not viewed as “internal meddling” as calls for external engagement, leverage, and pressure in ending suffering in South Sudan are popular and legitimate. Indeed, as a build up to the seminar, South Sudanese children unveiled a mural in the capital, Juba, to urge more concerted international engagement to end the devastating crisis engulfing their young country. These appeals did not go unnoticed; China’s former Special Representative for Africa, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, made a surprise entrance at the seminar to interact with participants and respond to their concerns and suggestions in an unscripted format, something we do not usually see.
On 2 September 2021, Ambassador Wu Peng, the Director General for Africa at China’s foreign ministry attended a show at the China/Africa Project to interact with independent African scholars on wide-ranging issues, including peace and security. They delivered the same message: China has an opportunity to be a positive force for peace, stability, and development, but African citizens should be at the centre of these engagements.
There is a growing sense that as Africa’s most important partner in trade, infrastructure, education, and more recently, foreign direct investment (FDI), China has a special responsibility to work closely with Africans to ensure that its multifaceted engagements are managed in ways that enhance inclusive development, address climate change, and deliver peace dividends. China, in short, should adhere to the norm of “do-no-harm” especially in conflict-affected countries.
In the final analysis, Africans recognise China’s role, and consider their relationship with the Asian giant as the most consequential in the Global South. However, they also want fairness, equity, responsibility, and true friendship. That is the way senior African academics, diplomats and think tanks put it at a seminar hosted by the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on 29 September 2021. Ambassador Anil Sooklal, the Deputy Director General for Asia at South Africa’s foreign ministry noted that over 70 percent of China’s Belt and Road activities were in “medium-to-high risk countries,” drawing attention to the need for conflict-sensitive investments and why China could not ignore the imperative for inclusive and sustainable peace.
“They [Chinese] are undoubtedly vital for Africa but delivering peace and stability will have to be an endeavour in true partnership where learning goes in both directions,” says Ambassador Erastus Mwencha the former AU Deputy Chairperson, who sits on the Africa/China Independent Working Group of Scholars that is reviewing the FOCAC partnership and developing policy recommendations.
The expectation that China should be a responsible, reliable, and genuine partner was also evident at the high-level retreat for African Ambassadors accredited to China organised in late October by Development Reimagined, a wholly African-owned development firm, and a pre-FOCAC seminar at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) on 4 November. Africans are saying they want a shared partnership that can create the necessary conditions for stability and prosperity. This begins by expanding the conceptual narratives from China/Africa to Africa/China, so that Africans are at the forefront of driving the relationship.
Hannah Ryder is CEO of Development Reimagined and Ovigwe Eguegu, is a Policy Analyst at Development Reimagined based in Abuja, Nigeria. They tweet at @hmryder and @OvigweEguegu respectively.