China is becoming an important military player in Africa. It has sent combat troops to bolster the United Nations operation in South Sudan, is opening a naval station in Djibouti, and has promised to invest in African Union peace operations. Is this evidence of Beijing’s creeping bid for superpower status, as pessimistic Western observers fear, or a positive sign that it is can contribute more to global stability?
As Mathieu Duchatel, Manuel Lafont Rapnouil and I argue in a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), it would be odd if China did not take a greater interest in African security. It has growing economic investments across the continent, and more and more Chinese nationals work there too. A quarter of a million live in Angola alone. Beijing has had to arrange the evacuation of its citizens during crises in Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) in recent years.
Beijing is also able to portray its presence in Africa as proof of its commitment to the international security system, at a time when it stands accused of stirring up conflicts in the South China Sea and standing aloof from the Syrian crisis. It has sent an infantry battalion to serve under U.N. command in South Sudan, a military hospital to Mali, and engineers to Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While there are still only 3,000 Chinese troops and police on U.N. missions, including some in the Middle East, this is nearly 40 times the number of American personnel involved.