Conflict & Resilience Monitor

The Dragon’s Game in the Sahel

10 Dec 2021

ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: UNMISS/Eric Kanalstein

China’s stakes in the region and why Beijing has interests in enhancing its security role in the Sahel.

On Sunday 29 October, Dakar hosted the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the China-Africa forum, the triennial high-level summit between Beijing’s delegates and state representatives from 53 African countries. Defence and security issues were crucial topics of this year’s discussion. Indeed, African states have vocally asked for more proactive involvement from Beijing, most evidently with Senegal’s Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall appealing to China for support in the fight against terrorism, organised crime and general instability in the Sahel.

China’s engagement in the Sahel’s security has largely followed the country’s growing commercial interests in the region.

While the first steps of the People’s Republic on the continent have been limited to the economic, financial, and industrial sectors, with now burgeoning economic interests and over one million of its citizens on the continent, China can no longer ignore the need for a more active security role on the continent. This applies even more to the Sahel, a region characterised by structural instability and conflicts, and where the rise of transnational criminal organisations and the proliferation of Islamist extremist movements has put Beijing’s interest in the region at stake. 

It is in this context that China has worked to establish itself as a serious security provider, from its participation in non-combatant peace operations in 1998, to combat-ready peacekeepers in 2012 and lastly with the implementation of a formal defence collaboration through the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

China’s engagement in the Sahel’s security has largely followed the country’s growing commercial interests in the region. Indeed, Beijing’s approach to the security sector is driven by the need to defend the country’s economic statecraft, its commercial initiatives, and the rising numbers of Chinese workers present in the region. China’s newly found involvement with African security also follows Beijing’s global strategy to strengthen its image as a responsible great power of the international community, boosting its credibility and international standing, while also deepening relationships with the Sahel’s countries. Furthermore, this new found role is giving Beijing the chance to test its military apparatus, with counterterrorism and infrastructure protection remaining the two key elements of the Chinese security engagement in the Sahel.

The first time Chinese troops were deployed on the African continent was in 2011, when Beijing dispatched a frigate to the Libyan coast to monitor the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese citizens from the country. In fact, the Libyan crisis tested China’s non-military engagement strategies in Africa, highlighting the lack of a Chinese security and defence system on the continent. However, it is indeed with the intervention in Mali in 2013, where for the first time Beijing sent not only a large detachment of personnel, but also enforced the UN mission with ground combat forces, that the Sahel-China relationship crossed a true milestone. This deployment not only enhanced China’s commitment to African partnerships and demonstrated Beijing’s willingness in moving towards a more comprehensive approach but also provided China with a security presence in a region relevant for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

From there the active security role of the People’s Republic in the area has only increased. China is currently the second-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, committed to policing activities, conflict mediation, and UN mandates to protect civilians. Beijing is also actively contributing to the G5 Sahel security and counterterrorism operations, collaborating with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger and aiding their Joint Forces with financial support of $45.56 million in 2019. The presence of Chinese soldiers has become commonplace on the continent. For example, China has more than 2,000 soldiers and staff deployed to UN Peacekeeping Missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, while Beijing established its first foreign military base in Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden, in 2017. Furthermore, during last week’s Dakar summit, President Xi, who joined the event through video-call, announced that China will implement 10 peace and security projects in Africa, while continuing to deliver military assistance to the African Union, support African countries’ efforts to maintain regional security, fight terrorism, and conduct joint peacekeeping exercises.

The Sahel is a key asset of China’s interests on the continent, both economically, for its expanding Belt and Road strategy and the geostrategic position it holds for the African markets, and in terms of international interests.

The People’s Republic is also emerging as a key player in the African defence industry, as well as within the security technology market, becoming the second largest arms supplier to Sub-Saharan African countries. While light weapons remain the focus of China’s trade, Beijing has been increasingly consolidating the export of larger, more sophisticated armed systems such as tanks, aircraft, and combat drones. 

China’s footprint also goes beyond the Sahel, as strictly intended, and does not stop at the security sector. Beijing is trying to solidify its relations with Nigeria through deeper financial links, which would boost Nigeria’s economy and expand trade relations between the two countries.  Cui Jianchun, the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, proposed the establishment of a substantial Chinese banking presence in the African country, boosting the financial integration initiated in 2018 with a three-year currency swap agreement. Furthermore, the Sahel represents an important hotspot of mineral resources, rich in bauxite, manganese, phosphates, iron ore, gold, but also petroleum – China’s largest oil producer China National Petroleum Corp has an ongoing operation in Chad -, and uranium. In Niger alone China has invested billions in the oil sector, launched the construction of a pipeline for crude oil between Niger’s Agadem Rift Basin fields and Benin’s Sèmè-Kraké port, and undertaken several infrastructural projects linked to uranium extraction. The Azelik Nigerian mine, for example, is operated by a partnership between the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the government of Niger, while in Mali, China’s Ganfeng Lithium acquired 50% of the Goulamina mine, one of the world’s largest deposits of spodumene. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China also expanded its influence in the area through its so-called Health Silk Road and its mask and vaccine diplomacy, donating 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Niger.

The Sahel region remains a combination of opportunities and challenges for Beijing. As an area overrun by insecurities and instability, the Sahel represents a threat to the economic and financial stakes of Beijing in the region, but also a space for growth for a renewed Chinese security and defence role. The Sahel is a key asset of China’s interests on the continent, both economically, for its expanding Belt and Road strategy and the geostrategic position it holds for the African markets, and in terms of international interests. Indeed, China’s security initiatives in the Sahel are helping Beijing to play a greater role inside of the United Nations dynamics, bolstering its international posture. While the level of China’s involvement in the area remains partially unpredictable, it is undoubtedly clear that Beijing has high stakes in the stability of the region, in which it aspires to remain and play an increasingly important security role.

Asia Jane Leigh is aresearcher of the Global Committee for the Rule of Law.

Article by:

Asia Jane Leigh
Researcher with the Global Committee for the Rule of Law

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