Can China be a more attractive security partner for Africa?

2023-09-25

As China offers Africa an alternative to traditional Western partnerships, its deepening multilateral engagements could considerably impact the continent, particularly on governance, human rights and regional cooperation. One aspect that has received little attention is the growing China-Africa security cooperation.

The third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing from 19 August to 2 September, convened over 100 defence ministers and senior representatives from nearly 50 African countries and the African Union (AU). Despite the impressive turnout, it was largely overshadowed by the BRICS Summit, contested elections in Zimbabwe and coups in Niger and Gabon.

The forum focused on implementing the Global Security Initiative (GSI) proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2022. The GSI sets out Beijing’s policy principles for addressing the world’s complex and interconnected security challenges. It aims to give China a larger role in global governance by supporting countries in the south. Although China has previously provided conflict mediation, military training and aid to security forces across Africa, the GSI signals a more concerted effort from Beijing.

As African nations seek partnerships on both sides of the prevailing global geopolitical divide, the GSI has garnered attention for its emphasis on respecting sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. African states have voiced frustrations with the Western-dominated structure of the international order while increasingly supporting Chinese engagement on the continent. This has extended to the peace and security sector.

The GSI aims to give China a larger role in global governance by supporting countries in the south

Beijing’s approach diverges from Africa’s Western partners on several counts. Along with non-interference, it advocates for resolving disputes through consultation and mediation over the more assertive or interventionist methods employed by some Western partners. The GSI also refrains from endorsing unilateral sanctions or collective confrontations to deal with those who breach established rules.

The ideas encapsulated in the GSI aren’t new and in some respects, mirror Western approaches (such as a shared emphasis on capacity building through training). But the GSI represents a more coordinated effort by Beijing to promote its brand of security assistance globally, with some observers speculating that Africa will be the testing ground for these aspirations.

The GSI’s promotion of non-interference will be particularly compelling to those African countries disillusioned with Western partners ‘paternalistic’ approach in the field of security cooperation. French intervention in Mali and Burkina Faso is an example of this. But China’s policy could harm human rights in Africa, giving authoritarian regimes more elbow room to operate with greater impunity.

Moreover, by supplying technology to autocratic governments and training government and military officials in countries with questionable human rights records, the GSI could undermine democracy and good governance, including the AU’s Agenda 2063.

China’s approach refrains from endorsing unilateral sanctions or collective confrontations

For example, the increased flow of Chinese digital tools with advanced surveillance capabilities to closed and authoritarian regimes may reinforce political repression, with Zimbabwe being a notable case. Although these concerns aren’t unique to China’s security cooperation offerings to the continent, these standards should not be accepted as the norm.

Western states emphasise the importance of democracy, good governance and human rights as integral to security cooperation, frequently attaching conditions when forming security partnerships with African countries. By doing so, they aim to foster accountable governance, promote inclusive societies and contribute to sustainable peace. Although this approach has at times been limited to lip service, it doesn’t negate the importance of individual human rights concerns in security cooperation.

For positive results, China must translate its commitments into action and deliver security projects that empower ‘African solutions’ while being cognisant of the continent’s governance challenges.

China’s policy could give authoritarian regimes more room to operate with greater impunity

A more nuanced definition of ‘sovereignty’ that accounts for states’ responsibility to protect their population’s individual human rights may be needed. This could reinforce existing continental and regional peace and security frameworks, and provide a more citizen-centric conception of security cooperation.

China and African governments should make sure that civil society stakeholders from regional peacekeeping efforts have a voice at future forums. This will bring the realities of those most affected by conflict into the discussions and improve coordination among stakeholders. GSI projects must also complement existing strategies, particularly the implementation of peace agreements and the involvement of relevant rival factions.

China’s increased security cooperation in Africa could be beneficial, but the GSI’s potential impact is not without its complexities and challenges, particularly concerning human rights and governance. It is imperative that stakeholders on the continent assess the implications and find a path that benefits both African governments and their people.

Jana de Kluiver, Research Officer, Africa in the World, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Amb. Bankole Adeoye / Twitter

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