China wants to redefine its military engagement in Africa and has invited military officials from across the continent to Beijing to explore new forms of strategic cooperation.
China's economic influence as an investor and trade partner continues to grow in Africa and new strategies are being discussed to ensure the security of Chinese business interests and investments.
Emphasizing Beijing's strategic interest in Africa, China's Ministry of National Defense invited high-ranking military representatives from 50 African countries to the first China-Africa Defense and Security Forum. The forum began on Tuesday in Beijing and is set to run until July 10.
"Securing trade routes is important for China as Africa's northeastern coast up to the Suez Canal is a part of the new maritime silk road, which is also a segment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)," said Cobus van Staden, a China expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs. BRI is a massive development and trade project launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping to connect China with Eurasian markets.
According to van Staden, China has an "increasingly complex relationship with Africa," and has extensive investments in many countries there. Many Chinese live in Africa and China has experience evacuating its nationals from crisis areas.
A tough place to do business
The Chinese military has gained some experience in African conflict zones. During the Libyan civil war in February 2011, it sent the warship "Xuzhou" to the Libyan coast to oversee the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese. It was the Chinese military's first overseas operation on the African continent.
"From that point on, the Chinese became increasingly aware of the complexity of peace and security in Africa," van Staden told DW. "China began to engage more and more in this area, for example by offering financial support to African Union (AU) peace troops and increased numbers of 'blue helmet' soldiers."
China wants to make the most of its participation in UN peace missions around Africa. However, with just around 2,400 blue helmet peacekeeping soldiers stationed across the continent, China doesn't belong to the largest contributors like Ethiopia, Bangladesh and India.
China's growing weapons exports to Africa
Over the past decade, arms exports have become an integral part of China's security cooperation with Africa.
China's exports of military gear to the continent have increased 55 percent in the five-year period from 2013 to 2017, compared to the preceding five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Beijing's share of total arms exports to Sub-Saharan African countries rose from 16 to 27 percent during this period.
The increase in weapons exports corresponds with the surge in foreign investment from China, which in Africa increased from around $40 billion in 2012 to $90 billion in 2016.
Overall, Africa plays a relatively minor role in global arms imports, accounting for a mere 7.2 percent in the 2013-17 period. And among the 40 largest importers of military equipment worldwide, only two are from the African continent, namely Egypt and Algeria.
But Algeria ranks third after Pakistan and Bangladesh on the list of destination countries for Chinese arms exports. In fact, Algeria alone accounts for 10 percent of China's total arms exports, including three modern frigates.
Small but inexpensive and popular
China also scatters its arms deliveries to Africa wider than its competitors like the US and Russia.
According to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China exported $3 billion worth of weapons to Africa in 2008-17.
The US, meanwhile, shipped $4.9 billion worth of weapons to Africa, 87 percent of them to Egypt and Morocco. And Russia's exports were valued at $12.4 billion, 84 percent of which destined for Algeria and Egypt.
China is considered as a supplier of cost-effective weapon systems, such as the combat-ready K-8 jet-powered training aircraft, which dominates the market for such aircraft in Africa. China has also consolidated its position on the market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) because of American reluctance to export them.
Criticism of Chinese arms sales to Africa has been fueled by reports that such weapons were used in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan and Somalia.
In 2014, according to CSIS, China's state-owned firm North Industries Corporation delivered 100 missile systems, over 9,000 automatic rifles and 24 million rounds of ammunition to the South Sudanese government, which is being criticized internationally for human rights violations.
Jerome Pellistrandi, professor at the University of Clermont-Ferrand and editor of the magazine Défense Nationale, told DW that some African governments find it easier to acquire aircraft and other weapon systems from the Chinese than from European manufacturers — just because China has fewer reservations about human rights.
China's military base in Djibouti
In August 2017, China drew attention to its military engagement in Africa by opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti, located on the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea.
The small country also hosts a US military base, Camp Lemonnier, with 4,000 soldiers and anti-terror Special Forces units. France, Italy and Japan also have bases in Djibouti.
According to van Staden, since plans were announced, China has been careful not to give the base a military designation. Chinese media characterized the project as a "support base." Since 2008, China has been participating in international anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden.
Read more: Djibouti: Location, location, location
Recently, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced that China would be building another dock at its facility in Djibouti, which would also be available for use by Kirgizstan. At a length of 450 meters, it could accommodate Chinese destroyers and supply ships.
According to Chinese media, the measures serve "to support international obligations like anti-piracy operations and the preservation of peace and stability in Africa and the world."
China and the US are close neighbors in Djibouti, where the US stations large military transport aircraft such as the Hercules C130.
In May, the Pentagon accused the Chinese of pointing lasers at landing US military aircraft at the base. Beijing vehemently denied the accusations.
Expert van Staden criticized the US assertions, and considered them to be an expression of Washington's discomfort over China's presence in Djibouti.