China's military leaders have invited African army chiefs to Beijing — officially, to discuss peacekeeping missions. But China's military strategy in Africa also has a few other objectives, experts say.
In 2011, Chinese troops were deployed on the African continent for the first time. Back then, the government in Beijing had dispatched a frigate to the Libyan coast to monitor the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese citizens from the war-torn country.
Today, some eight years later, the presence of Chinese soldiers has become commonplace, at least in parts of the African continent. For example, some 2,000 Chinese troops are currently involved in UN peacekeeping missions in African countries like South Sudan and Mali. And it was in Djibouti, strategically located on the Gulf of Aden on Africa's east coast, where China established its first foreign military base in 2017.
The Chinese government now intends to expand its military cooperation with the continent. To this end, China's Defense Ministry has invited African army chiefs to a summit in Beijing, running from July 14 to 20. Last year, the Chinese capital hosted a meeting of high-ranking military attaches and army representatives from virtually all African countries. If the available press bulletins are anything to go by, there is one issue that will clearly dominate the agenda this week: peace.
The focus of the talks has shifted increasingly toward safeguarding peace, Cobus van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs told DW. And a summit name change also points in that direction. In 2018, African delegations were in Beijing to take part in the China-Africa Defense and Security Forum. This year's invitation dropped the "defense" heading, instead replacing it with "peace" — a shift of Chinese priorities toward a stronger commitment to peacekeeping on the conflict-ravaged continent, said van Staden.
By contrast, political analyst Lina Benabdallah, who studies China's Africa policies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in the US, does not attach a deeper meaning to the name change. In 2018, the Chinese had simply intended to test the water with a first round of cooperation talks, she said. This time, they were setting up an official panel of increased distinction, said Benabdallah.
China is predominantly interested in consolidating its presence in Africa, Benabdallah told DW, for instance through intensified collaboration with the African Union, more police and military training exercises and more peacekeeping troops. This is also where the military base in Djibouti plays a crucial role.
For China, however, Djibouti doesn't just carry military significance. The small nation on the Gulf of Aden is also a strategically important hub for President Xi Jinping's economic signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative. The port of Djibouti is the starting point of a new railway line to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, a line financed and constructed by China. Similar construction projects are to make sure that, in future, railway lines will be operational across all of eastern Africa. China, Benabdallah said, will also use this week's forum as an instrument to safeguard its economic interests on the continent.
More peace through weapons?
Arms are another key issue on the agenda. In recent years, China has turned into a major weapons and equipment supplier for Africa's armies. According to van Staden, Russia is still the No. 1 arms supplier in Africa, but China ranks second. The Asians wish to position themselves as supplier of affordable but advanced military technology, Benabdallah said. This despite the fact that in 2018, China's Xi backed the African Union objective of implementing a ceasefire across the continent by 2020.
Benabdallah pointed out that other powers, like Russia and the US, were also trying to enforce their military and economic interests in Africa. This harbors dangers, but also opportunities, she said, adding that the smart way to proceed was for African heads of state and government to ensure that they make their decisions as independently as possible. If they didn't, "other governments could interfere too much," she said.