May 20, 2021

IntelBrief: China’s Security Through Development Model in Africa

(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • China has invested heavily in African infrastructure, often in return for guarantees of access to strategic military or economic opportunities.
  • Investing in relationships with elites has enabled China to maintain strong ties with a number of African governments, especially autocracies.
  • The absence of Chinese colonial history in Africa results in Beijing enjoying a clean slate when engaging the continent compared to Western countries.
  • China’s support to autocratic regimes and its transactional approach to African countries could lead to a backlash among citizens regarding Chinese policies on the continent.

Over the past decade, China has increased its role in expanding infrastructure projects in Africa. These projects have often been accompanied by development initiatives resulting in direct benefits to Beijing beyond the economic sphere, mostly in the security realm. In many instances, support from Beijing has been accompanied by an influx of Chinese labor and little knowledge transfer to local populations. However, although Chinese workers remain prevalent in Angola and Algeria, Chinese workers on the continent have steadily declined since 2015. China’s flagship project in the region is in the former French colony of Djibouti, where China has maintained its first military base outside of China since 2017. China joined major Western players in Djibouti, including France, which has its largest base in Africa in Djibouti, and the U.S., only several miles from China’s base. Thus, China’s base in Djibouti can be seen as a symbol of its desired parity with Western powers in Africa. China also maintains leverage over Djibouti by holding 70% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in debt. If Djibouti is unable to repay these loans, China could force concessions from Djibouti, such as demanding greater military basing rights in the country.

China used this playbook with Sri Lanka when Colombo defaulted on its debts to Beijing, securing access to a naval base off the Sri Lankan coast. China’s maritime strategy is closely integrated with its land-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which connects China to Africa and Europe for trade. China’s relationship with Djibouti exemplifies its security through development model. China has acquired security benefits, such as current (and possibly future) military basing rights, while also purchasing Djibouti’s debt and using Chinese banks and corporations to finance and build virtually all of Djibouti’s infrastructure projects, including the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway. That railway is crucial to enabling Chinese exports to reach land-locked Ethiopia through Djibouti and is a microcosm of how Chinese infrastructure development in Africa serves its strategic goals.

Debate persists among scholars and experts on how to view China’s security through development model in Africa. Some have acknowledged that China’s economic stake in Africa has decreased the overall market share of Western countries on the continent, but that global trade in Africa is increasing overall. Thus, China is not necessarily competing with the West economically in Africa, but is also allowing Africa to diversify its trading partners. On the other hand, Western countries often tie economic and security aid to African countries’ progress around indicators such as democratization and respect for human rights. Chinese aid also comes with strings attached, but not in the same way; partnership with likeminded states has focused on economic development through the types of infrastructure projects that directly serve Chinese economic interests.

In international forums like the United Nations, China has also grown increasingly proactive on security and development issues. After twenty years of near silence on counterterrorism issues in the Security Council, China used its Presidency of the Council in March 2020, for example, to focus on countering terrorism and extremism in Africa. While the outcome Presidential Statement offered little controversy, the fact of the meeting and outcome itself signaled an increased focus on the security dividends of development assistance. Just yesterday, China used its Presidency of the Council to focus on Africa again, organizing a high-level meeting on “Addressing the root causes of conflict while promoting post-pandemic recovery in Africa.” Another Presidential Statement proposed by China was adopted on the heels of the meeting. With this move, Beijing is attempting to cement development and security on the continent as a key priority.

While China does attempt to engage with African citizens through various soft power initiatives, Beijing mostly caters to African elites. For example, Chinese field hospitals established in Mali during its counterinsurgency against jihadist groups in 2012 were specifically for soldiers, not for wounded civilians. This was intended to build trust among Malian soldiers who might one day go on to become top-ranking officers in the military, valuable contacts for future deals. From the era of Mao Zedong when China promoted Communist solidarity in Africa, to today when China promotes security through development, Beijing invites thousands of African university and graduate students to China each year. In the long run, the goal is to build ties between African elites and the Chinese government and business community. At the same time, there has been little public agitation against China in Africa, though Chinese citizens have been attacked by jihadist groups, including in attacks against hotels by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and kidnappings by Boko Haram. It does not, however, appear they were targeted for being Chinese. China has left little historical, such as colonial, negative impressions on Africans, nor do Chinese approaches vis-a-vis Taiwan, the South China Sea, or even in Xinjiang Province gain much attention or cause much controversy in Africa.

Chinese development projects in Africa are also highly visible, such as railways, ports, and roadways, which mostly leave a positive impression on local communities who utilize such projects. Still, the quality of some infrastructure projects can be suboptimal at times, and there have been accusations of corruption. However, the hidden costs of such projects often go unseen, at least by common citizens – such as African countries becoming indebted to China (although China did cancel debt for some African countries in 2020), China being granted military rights, or China supplying arms to a government that then uses them to suppress domestic populations, such as in Sudan. Therefore, while China’s “short-game” has yielded tangible results, some favorable reactions, and provided China with a foothold on the continent, the “long game” is less certain. China’s strong-arming of African governments to cede to its security or economic demands, as well as its propping up autocratic regimes, could lead to Africans becoming increasingly suspicious of China’s security through development model in Africa.