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July 1, 2014

China's security challenge in Africa

For the People’s Republic of China, there is no pretence at charity or aid; they make no bones about their growing presence in Africa and intentions. Africa's best strategy in this relationship therefore largely depends on its capacity to drive a hard bargain with Beijing. One issue that is however becoming more urgent for China as it's economic pursuits and presence expand on the continent is physical security.

History has several case studies of external powers for which Africa’s mineral wealth was indispensable to their industrial growth backing up their forays on the continent with a projection of military might to suppress local resistance and security challenges. Following a lethal attack on a Chinese oil facility in Ethiopia, *China Daily* ran a headline saying: “China needs to consider new channels to protect overseas interests.”

This article, in discussing the security threats posed to China’s economic investments, leans on a 2014 research paper published by Yun Sun at the Brookings Institution, and classifies the threats under themes set out in that paper.

Criminal Attacks and Robberies

In January 2007, nine Chinese workers were kidnapped in southern Nigeria. In June of the same year  Shandong Qingrun China Exim bank’s branch was robbed in Togo. That August, four more Chinese were robbed in Nigeria, and one of them was killed. In October of 2008, nine China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) workers were kidnapped in Sudan; five of those workers later died.

Attacks on Chinese projects

Two Chinese workers were in January 2007 kidnapped by the anti-government “Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta” in southern Nigeria, an action interpreted as a threat against Chinese companies’ exploitation of crude oil in the Niger Delta, In April that year, the exploration site of Zhong Yuan Oil Field was attacked by the anti- government Ogaden National Liberation Front in Ethiopia, with nine Chinese workers killed. The attack was against “any investment in Ogaden that benefits the Ethiopian government".

In October 2010, unrest at the Collum Coal Mine in Zambia led to 11 local mining workers being shot and wounded by Chinese managers; three Chinese were also injured. A related incident occurred two years later in August 2012, when a Chinese mine manager was killed following a salary dispute at the same Collum Coal Mine.

Chinese Vessels Attacked By Somali Pirates

In November 2008, the Chinese fishing vessel Tianyu No. 8 was seized by Somali pirates while fishing off the coast of Kenya. The ship was released the following year on February 8, 2009, with 24 crew members safely on board. In December of 2008, the Chinese fishing boat Zhenhua 4 was hijacked on its way back to Shanghai, but was rescued within four hours by a Malaysian warship and military.

Another attack was launched in October 2009 on a Chinese bulk carrier owned by COSCO Qingdao was captured 700 miles east of the Somali coastline in the Indian Ocean. And in June 2010, the Singapore-flagged Chinese- chartered chemical tanker MV Golden Blessing was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, and 19 Chinese crew members were taken hostage. The ship reportedly was released in November 2010 on payment of $2.8 million.

Security Threats resulting from Political Instability

Domestic political turmoil are very popular in Africa, while some foreign powers are accused of exploiting instability to maximize profits, these turmoil’s do present challenges to investors. And for the Chinese Communist Party, this instability remains a huge security threat to its nationals, investments, legitimacy, well as its internal and external prestige.

A classic case in point was Libyan civil war in 2011; China’s Communist Party was forced, in part by domestic public opinion, to mobilize significant military and diplomatic resources to evacuate over than 30,000 Chinese nationals based in Libya. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army dispatched four military aircrafts and one naval vessel for the rescue mission.

In spite of the rescue, Chinese media reported “major financial losses”, explaining that the regime change resulted in total losses as high as $20 billion for Chinese companies on the ground, due to uncompleted contracts originally made with the Gadhafi government.

China’s Security Policy

Beijing primarily relied on its embassies to provide consular protection to Chinese nationals and investments. The challenge however is that on average, each Chinese consular officer serves 130,000 overseas Chinese nationals. Chinese embassies in Africa turn to on local governments to provide protection following its security policy of non-interference, however the inefficiency and incompetence of local African governments have made consular protection symbolic than effective. China was unable to deploy military forces because it follows strictly the principle of no overseas deployment.

Over the years, following the series of threats it has suffered, Beijing has consequently softened its devotion to non-interference, while maintaining the primacy of sovereignty. Today, it willingly supports interventions whenever regional stability is at stake, as this goes a long way to protect its investments. Instead of relying on its military presence to counterbalance internal threats, China has joined collective security efforts within the framework of the United Nations and African regional organizations in promoting peace and security in Africa.

China has moved beyond its reliance primarily on multilateral institutions, especially with the UN, for security and missions inside Africa. More recently, it began to dispatch PLA naval escort missions to the Gulf of Aden in 2008 under authorization by UN Security Council Resolutions 1816, 1838, 1846, and 1851 (resolutions about effectively rallying international efforts to battle Somali piracy). This does not conflict with its “no troop abroad” principle because of the U.N mandate on international efforts to crack the whip on Somali pirates. Since then, China has dispatched 16 fleets to escort 5,300 Chinese and foreign ships, and the missions remain active on the Gulf of Alden, ensuring the protection of its vessels.

In the years to come, China’s economic cooperation with Africa is expected to grow simultaneously with the security challenges and China might have to develop security policies to suppress local resistance. The strategic importance of Africa in fuelling China’s industrial growth cannot be understated, progressively China’s growing military might and increasing diplomatic assertiveness may lead to a more strident security policy in the future of its economic relations with Africa.

Favour E. Nunoo is a Ghanaian journalist and KAS Media Africa Scholar at University of the Witwatersrand. This article was first published at Citifmonline.

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