Chinese Peacekeeping in Africa: Cooperation or Rivalry with the EU?

First Detachment of China's Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion Arrives in Juba © United Nations Photo / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

Since 2013, which marked the first deployment of a Chinese combat troop battalion to Mali as part of the peacekeeping force of the UN operation MINUSCA, China's role in peace and security in Africa has become more proactive. In the last few years, China began to fully engage with the responsibilities and dilemmas involved in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Chinese emerging norms in this field have often been conceptualised as being in opposition to the Western “liberal peacebuilding” paradigm. However, the interests of China, Western powers, and the UN seem to be converging, allowing for a favourable juncture which may foster increased cooperation among these actors. On its website, the European External Action Service defines China as being “simultaneously a cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” African security seems to fit in the category of cooperation, but will the juncture hold? This question will be addressed by examining the nature of Sino-European interaction within the UN Peacekeeping missions in Mali and Sudan.

The Chinese Approach to Peacekeeping

First, it is necessary to take a step back and to elaborate on China’s recent involvement in peacekeeping missions to Africa, which will clarify its emerging norms and practices. In 2019, the most recent year for which such data is available, China contributed for 15% of the UN Peacekeeping budget, representing the second contributor after the U.S. (UN Peacekeeping, 2020a). Moreover, Chinese troops and police personnel amount to 2458 as of October 2020, making it the eight largest personnel contributor (UN Peacekeeping, 2020b). Finally, since the establishment of the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund (UNPDF), financed by China’s pledge to give 1 billion USD over a period of 10-year (UNPDF, 2020), a more comprehensive Chinese involvement in peacebuilding was also observed.

Chinese troops’ deployments in Africa. (Source: UN Peacekeeping, 2020c).

Second, Chinese emerging norms have been recently condensed in the September 2020 White Paper titled "China's Armed Forces: 30 Years of UN Peacekeeping Operations”. In order to understand Chinese motivations, it is necessary to balance its own official narrative with punctual analysis of their actions on the ground.

A first element is the respect of state sovereignty, as China pledges an “abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country”. This notion has come to be known as the “non-interference” principle, which guides Chinese cooperation with other developing countries since the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. Indeed, this aspect is still frequently evoked by China in its bilateral forums with African countries, most notably within the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). There, China presents itself as a “partner” to African countries, highlighting the importance of the host government’s consent before a peacekeeping operation is deployed (de Coning & Osland, 2020).

Moreover, its support for multilateralism and for the legality of the UN framework is articulated as a defence against U.S. unilateralism. In fact, China has strongly condemned the use of peacekeeping operations as tools for regime change in the past, especially after the 2011 intervention in Libya (Hu, 2014). As such, the White Paper highlights the importance of respecting the “territorial integrity and political independence of sovereign states” and of remaining impartial in order to “strictly fulfil the mandate of the Security Council”.

On the other hand, involvement in global governance has been conceptualised within the framework of the “responsible power” narrative, which has led China to increase its involvement in peacekeeping (Kuo, 2015). This aspect is highlighted throughout the recent White Paper. Here, Chinese responsibility for “world peace” is due to its nature of “major power”. Moreover, the interest for “prosperity of mankind” is articulated as necessary in order to achieve an “harmonious world”, a concept coined by Hu Jintao, which refers to Confucian philosophy. Indeed, peacekeeping has become a tool of foreign policy, which enables China to project power and legitimacy both at home and abroad, while nurturing the image of a benevolent and responsible actor (Fung, 2019).

As such, Chinese support for UN peacekeeping operations has been predicated on the authorization of the sanctions by the UN Security Council and on the consent of the parties, especially of the incumbent government. Moreover, the involvement of the African Union (AU) or of sub-continental institutions, such as the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), is encouraged as a means to achieve local ownership and to curtail international interference (Ganchev, 2019). These central tenets have been summarised by the “Five no” approach, detailed within the 2018 edition of the FOCAC (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2018).

China continues to apply the non-interference principle to the newest generation of UN missions in Africa, the so-called “robust” operations, often featuring peace enforcement units (Ramsbotham et al. 2016). In particular, China provides troops to MINUSMA, UNMISS and MONUSCO, which together with the UN mission to the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) have been the foremost examples of the new UN approach (Tull, 2017). Indeed, the missions’ focus on enhancing the incumbent government’s legitimacy and its effective control of its whole territory (Andersen, 2018) are in line with the “Five No” approach. However, the expanded mandates of the missions, encompassing the active Protection of Civilians within the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework have put China in difficult positions. In particular, involvement in active combat - and thus in local politics - could be interpreted as undue interference (Fung, 2019).

A Favourable Conjuncture

Thus, the evolution of a distinct Chinese approach in Africa has been rapidly proceeding over the past 5 years. As it has generally been welcomed by African scholars and the wider public (Afrobarometer, 2020), this could lead to difficult debates within UN Peacekeeping concerning the rules of engagement or the right balance between the respect of sovereignty and protection of human rights. However, for the time being, it seems that no direct confrontation on these issues is emerging, and indeed a clear contraposition between the “Washington consensus” and the “Beijing consensus” (Ramo, 2004) has not yet materialised. In fact, while it has emerged that China hopes to project soft power and to (also) serve its own national interest through its involvement in peacekeeping (Kuo, 2015), this does not imply an oppositional stance.

Chinese influence is perceived as positive in the surveyed African countries

(Source: Afrobarometer, 2020)

On the one hand, UN Peacekeeping tends to accommodate Chinese needs as the latter is a prominent troop contributor (Fung 2019). Indeed, the UN understands that UN Peace Enforcement and Robust Peacekeeping missions, with their expanded mandates and blurry lines between conflict management and peace enforcement, calls into question the Chinese long stated “non-intervention” principle. As such, deployment in more “static” missions is preferred, with Chinese troops being tasked with protection of UN contingents or local headquarters. On its part, China supported UNSC sanctioned interventions in Africa, notwithstanding their comprehensive Protection of Civilians mandates. Moreover, China encourages close cooperation with the AU, as part of the ‘African solutions to African problems’ approach (Barber, 2018).

On the other hand, scholars’ critique of the liberal peacebuilding paradigm has affected a shift in the practice of Western intervention. Liberal peacebuilding has been defined as being focused on democracy, rule of law, human rights, and market economy (Richmond & Franks 2009). However, many scholars criticised its blueprint approach which encouraged countries to adopt broad-sweeping reforms as prerequisites for successful reconstruction processes (Paris, 2002). As such, the failures and difficulties encountered in peacekeeping efforts have prompted a turn towards a “pragmatic approach”, which takes into consideration local normative definitions of power, accountability, and development (Moe & Stepputat, 2018). For instance, some scholars argue for a more situated approach, which takes into consideration the governance models already in place and empowers citizens to act within their own communities (Autesserre, 2019; Mac Ginty & Richmond, 2013).

As such, it seems that a convergence of approaches among the UN, China, and Western powers has been taking place. Among the members of the UNSC, France and Germany have stepped up their cooperation with China with regards to peacekeeping missions to Africa. For instance, the joint statement released by Angela Merkel and Li Keqiang, after the 5th German-Chinese intergovernmental consultations in 2018 highlights the importance of “building trust” via military bilateral exercises, and “cooperation within the framework of peace-keeping mandates of the United Nations” (Joint Declaration, 2018). More recently, in the occasion of Xi Jinping visit to France in March 2019, a joint statement with Emmanuel Macron was released, declaring their intention to increase “cooperation on UN peacekeeping operations, and supporting the initiative by the African Union (AU) and the UN to provide sustainable and predictable financing to African peace operations” (Joint Statement, 2019). In its recent White Paper, China has noted how joint exercises and reciprocal military visits have increased their cooperation with the peacekeeping forces of various EU members, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as the UK.

Is Cooperation on the Ground Feasible?

While there is arguably favourable juncture of interests among China and EU members involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa, it remains to be seen how cooperation has evolved on the ground. In particular, the main instances where interaction has occurred are during the UNMISS mission to South Sudan, established in 2011, and during the MINUSMA mission to Mali, established in 2013.

First, cooperation among China and EU members is an ongoing process, which is often developing on a case by case basis. However, while many criticalities still exist, there is an evolution of Sino-European interaction. This is reflected in a gradual Chinese acceptance of Western peacekeeping doctrines over time, but also in an increasing recognition of the Chinese constructive role in Africa by European actors.

This process began with MINUSMA, which represented the first deployment of Chinese peacekeeping troops to Africa and the first instance of Sino-European cooperation in this area. As part of the process of accommodating Chinese resistance to participate in the Protection of Civilians mandates, their troops were tasked with guarding the perimeter of UN sites and their engagement was limited to self-defence (Fung, 2019). This aspect was criticised by other contingents and observers, who highlighted the passive approach of Chinese peacekeepers in communicating with other contingents (Cabestan, 2018). However, as the Chinese carried out various missions, their close contact with the Dutch contingent along which they were deployed led to a training cooperation with the Netherlands, as China came to admire their 3 D approach (diplomacy, defence, and development). Moreover, foreign Minister Wang Yi explicitly referred to the contingent as a “comprehensive security force”, mirroring the EEAS’ own “comprehensive approach”, which included civilian personnel and carried out humanitarian and development tasks (Duggan 2017).

Secondly, Chinese capacities remain limited on the ground, as its ability to project military power in Africa is only now beginning to grow. For instance, during UNMISS in South Sudan, Chinese disorganisation both within its own ranks and in coordinating with better equipped contingents emerged when fighting broke out in Juba in 2016. This led to a failure to find backup for the Chinese contingent, which resulted in the deaths of two Chinese peacekeepers (International Crisis Group 2017). However, cooperation in this area seems to be improving, especially with the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti after 2016. Indeed, China and the EU member states are cooperating closely on security matters, such as anti-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Aden and security support to Ethiopia. As such, while concerns and suspicions remain in the more political issue of economic development in the Horn of Africa, peacekeeping cooperation and military coordination has increased (CRU Policy Brief 2018).

Chinese military base in Djibouti (Source: CRU Policy Brief, 2018)

A Future for Sino-European Cooperation in Peacekeeping?

Hence, while cooperation on the ground seems possible, a certain caution should be employed in assuming that a clearly designated path exists for Sino-European relations. Indeed, interactions among these actors continue to be infused with caution on both sides. As such, the preferred way remains to coordinate within multilateral mechanisms, which involve legitimate local actors such as the African Union. As a consequence, the needs of public diplomacy and soft power in multilateral settings may lead to overstate the willingness to share information as sensitive as diplomatic or tactical intelligence.

However, this prolonged interaction within the complex African peace and security architecture is also generating greater mutual understanding in terms of each other’s norms and practices. For instance, it seems that China and the EU are eager to continue counter-terrorist efforts in the Sahel, as both strongly support the working of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, by pledging funds and keeping the issue on the international agenda (European Council, 2020; FOCAC, 2020). On the other hand, the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray may highlight their different interests and approaches. In fact, while the European Commission has suspended budgetary support to Ethiopia’s government over human rights violations concerns, China seems to be inclined to provide direct support to the Abiy Ahmed’s administration (Politico, 2021; XinhuaNet, 2021).

Thus, Sino-European cooperation in peacekeeping seems to be evolving and deepening, as China and EU member states find the stability of African countries to be a common interest. In fact, on the one hand, the ‘practical turn’ is changing Western peacekeeping practices, and, on the other, China is deeply concerned with being perceived as a responsible power on the international stage. Hence, as long as these interests coincide, organisational challenges on the ground can be overcome. However, while this is true for the more technical practice of peacekeeping, the same cannot be said for the closely related field of development and peacebuilding. Indeed, important differences in both ideology and methods persist among the players, perhaps casting a shadow on the possibility of a meaningful and productive Sino-European cooperation on the African continent.

Stefania Calciati is an Italian graduate in International Relations at University of Kent, UK, where she focused on Conflict Resolution and China Studies. During her exchange year at Beijing Renmin University, she developed a keen interest in EU-Chinese Relations and in Economic Development. Currently she lives in Paris, where she is a Master Candidate in International Development at Sciences Po. Her research interests are Peacebuilding, EU External Action, and Political Philosophy. You can reach her via LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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