China tests its military muscle in Africa - ISS Africa

2017-11-09

Is the hugely successful film Wolf Warrior 2 a metaphor for China's growing presence in Africa – and perhaps beyond? It's an action thriller featuring a Rambo-like Chinese hero called Leng Feng. He takes on the bad guys, first at home and then in Africa, where he foils Somali pirates, rebels and mercenaries trying to overthrow a government. In passing he tackles a deadly (fictitious) infectious disease called Lamanla.

Like his American inspiration, Feng is something of a maverick who has been discharged from the Chinese army and who pushes official limits. Nonetheless he is ultimately a great patriot (otherwise, presumably, the Chinese embassy in Pretoria wouldn't be hosting the South African premiere next week).

Wolf Warrior 2 is being seen as a symbol of China's growing security presence in Africa where, like Feng, it is also fighting Somali pirates, rebels, terrorists and other enemies of the established order – not to mention Ebola. The film is being interpreted by some as a cinematic expression of China's growing assertiveness on the world stage under President Xi Jinping.

He told the Chinese Communist Party's 19th Congress last month, for example, that it was time for his nation to become 'a mighty force' that took a greater lead on the world stage on political, economic, military and environmental issues.

Africa, some Chinese scholars believe, is being used by Beijing as a zone of experimentation for this more assertive global role. This is in contrast to China's traditional principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, as Sinologist Chris Alden noted at the launch of his book China and Africa: Building Peace and Security Cooperation on the Continent at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Sudan and Darfur became a turning point in China's security approach in the early 2000s

In the book, Alden – a senior research fellow at SAIIA and professor in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science – and his fellow authors describe how China's security presence in Africa has been growing. This shift from its erstwhile hands-off attitude has brought Beijing closer to the approach of Western powers which have been involved far longer in African security. But it also caused some disquiet and suspicion among those Western powers about China's designs on the continent, Alden said.

Nevertheless, China and Western powers are also learning to cohabit in the security domain, most notably in Djibouti where China, the US, Japan and European militaries are living cheek by jowl in a very small space. This could also be a pilot study for security cooperation elsewhere.

Alden explained how China's rapidly expanding economic involvement in Africa over the past two decades had exposed it to the vagaries of African politics, forcing it to step up its meagre security presence to protect its businesses and its citizens. China began increasing its military footprint on African soil in 1998, with a growing endorsement of and presence in United Nations peacekeeping missions..

The book observes how Chinese investment has been drawn to war-torn, unstable or fragile states like Sudan, which Western companies have mostly shunned; or to countries like Angola which have rejected Western donor conditionalities. But this has often confronted China with unusual risks.

Sudan and Darfur, where China has considerable oil investments, became a turning point in China's security approach in the early 2000s, Alden said. It took an increasingly activist position there, initiating discussion at the UN Security Council and even allowing the cases of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and others to go to the International Criminal Court. It was also motivated by concern about its international reputation, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that its involvement in Sudan could hurt its international reputation.

The shift from China's hands-off attitude brings Beijing closer to the approach of Western powers

As South Sudan gained independence in 2011, fell out with Khartoum over oil deliveries and later imploded, Beijing played an active mediation role. China then contributed combat soldiers to the UN peacekeeping mission in the newborn country.

And just as Darfur had pushed China into areas it hadn't really expected to enter, so the 2011 crisis in Libya – where China also had considerable oil interests – pushed it even further along the road of engagement in peace and security matters, Alden said.

China also entered the private security domain, rehatting People's Liberation Army soldiers as private security guards to protect some of its larger commercial interests. It also increased its support to African Union peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. It put combat boots on the ground in Mali. And it became involved in the post-civil war peacebuilding efforts in Liberia, partly as a result of that country shifting diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China.

China also stepped up its bilateral military support in Africa, with training – but also more controversially becoming the third-largest provider of small arms to Africa. Alden said, though, that Western non-governmental organisations were pressuring Beijing to reduce those sales as they were fuelling conflict. 

Alden noted that China's involvement in African maritime security had been growing too, starting with the Chinese navy's participation in the international naval patrols against Somali pirates in 2008. In 2015 it went further by establishing the naval base in Djibouti and then expanding its presence there.

Cobus van Staden of the Wits University media studies department told the SAIIA seminar that China's involvement in Africa was increasingly mirroring the robust debate in Western societies about exposing soldiers to danger in far-off places. After two of its peacekeepers were killed in South Sudan and one in Mali last year, there had been an outpouring of debate on Chinese social media. Some questioned why Chinese soldiers were in those countries at all, while others called for an even more aggressive response.

Is Wolf Warrior 2 a metaphor for China's growing presence in Africa – and perhaps beyond?

Van Staden felt the demands by many Chinese citizens for revenge in South Sudan and Mali, coming at just the time Wolf Warrior 2 became the biggest blockbuster in Chinese movie history, expressed the way China was seeing its role in the world. That is, as a transnational actor, as opposed to the non-interventionist policy of the past, he said.

Alden suggested that the lessons China was learning in Africa could be applied to Xi's hugely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, or Silk Road – a development and transport corridor linking Beijing with the West. Alden said, as in Africa, China's economic interests in the Silk Road were exposing it to political contests and probably the need to provide security protection.

If China's growing security involvement in Africa was changing its fundamental policy of non-interventionism, would its growing involvement in supporting African elections likewise herald a greater embrace of democracy more generally, asked John Stremlau of the Wits International Relations Department. He was surprised at China's open support for post-conflict elections in Guinea and Madagascar, for instance.

Alden thought not, saying China still preferred the developmental post-conflict peacebuilding model. This put the stress on socio-economic reconstruction and development over the Western liberal peacebuilding model, which emphasised democracy as the foundation for societal recovery, he said.

Nonetheless one can imagine that China's contribution to post-conflict elections in Africa might at least begin to introduce some constructive ideological tension with its own authoritarianism at home. And incidentally, the growing security footprint in Africa of its unquestionable friend in Beijing seems to have silenced many African critics of Western 'imperialism' on the continent.

Rambo and Feng, arm in arm, stride off into the African sunset?

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.



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