China using its new Global Security Initiative to build military standing in Africa

China is promoting its new Global Security Initiative as a way to boost ties with African nations through military training, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism - even as Western powers like France and the US face resistance or are cutting back on their African military operations.

In a letter to the second China-Africa Peace and Security Forum on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on both to institute the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and safeguard international fairness and justice. He wrote that "realising lasting peace and universal security is the common aspiration of the Chinese and African people".

"China is ready to work with African friends in upholding the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security," Xi added.

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Announced in April, the GSI opposes the pursuit of a nation's own security at the cost of others' security or the wanton use of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction. The initiative is the latest display of China's ambition to be a leader in global governance and security.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe addresses the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. Photo: Handout alt=Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe addresses the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. Photo: Handout>

Beijing is deepening its security cooperation with Africa, where it has contributed thousands of troops to the United Nations peacekeeping missions; has been training more military officials; and seeks further involvement in the peace process in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions. Further, a growing number of African countries are buying military arms and equipment from China.

On Monday, senior defence officials from 48 African nations participated in the forum, which took place online. Wei Fenghe, China's defence minister, delivered the keynote address.

China and Africa, Wei said, should "strengthen equipment and technological cooperation, deepen joint maritime training exercises [and] expand exchanges in professional fields [so as] to promote the China-Africa peace and security cooperation".

With the emergence of the Belt and Road Initiative and its centrality in Beijing's global strategy, China's military and security footprint in Africa has expanded, John Calabrese, head of the Middle East-Asia Project at American University in Washington, said.

Through the belt and road, China has helped build mega infrastructure projects across Africa, including ports, highways, power dams, railways and roads. That has necessitated the expansion of Chinese military cooperation to protect its citizens and investments. In 2017, Beijing established its first overseas military base in Djibouti.

Calabrese said that under the GSI, military training, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism efforts will feature prominently in Africa.

"These areas would arguably do the most to protect China's equities and nationals on the continent, at a relatively low transaction cost and level of visibility that would not spark as much US or Western attention as, say, establishing military bases," Calabrese said.

China's security-related activities in Africa are wide-ranging and span the continent. China contributed to the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost a decade ago, China sent its first combat troops to the UN mission in Sudan. In 2013, it sent troops to join the United Nations peacekeeping operations mission in Mali.

Additionally, Beijing's cooperation in counter-piracy operations has included not just its own naval forces' contributions in the Gulf of Aden but in providing resources, including donating patrol boats to the Ghanaian military, Calabrese said.

"China's efforts extend to public security and law enforcement cooperation. The Chinese led police training during the UN mission in Liberia in 2014, and more recently, for example, in South Africa and Zambia," he said.

China has also provided financial support to regional institutions' security efforts, such as its contributions to the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Economic Community of West African States. Invoking the GSI, Beijing said it would continue to deliver military assistance to the African Union.

Chinese security firms, including Beijing DeWe Security Service and Huaxin Zhong An Security Group, are also part of China's security mix. Military exercises are also part of the evolving ties, Calabrese added, noting People's Liberation Army drills with Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that China was positioning the GSI as a solution to the continent's security challenges - "a non-Western alternative and mechanism by the global south for the global south".

Soliman said Beijing would use the initiative to "build China's status as a great power that is able to project influence beyond its sphere of influence in Asia".

"Beijing has emerged as a strategic partner for many Middle Eastern and African nations in the last 10 to 15 years, in part by China's transactional military and security cooperation. Transactional bilateral relations are the model of choice for many regional powers," Soliman said.

In Africa, Soliman said, China's "footprint regionally may come sooner than policymakers in Washington and Brussels expect".

Benjamin Barton, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus, said the GSI sounded like a catch-all concept.

"I think this is more about image than actual content, with China being seen as an active participant within the African security realm," Barton said.

"The image of China caring for the needs of its African 'brothers' [mostly the elite] is one which I think the leadership in Beijing pays great attention to and carefully curates, even if its track record is far from bulletproof.

"This is attributable as much to security as it is to other components of China's interests on the continent such as infrastructure."

Barton said the initiative might help lay the groundwork for growing Chinese activism on African security matters.

Chinese military and public or private security interests, Barton said, would continue to grow in Africa because of local demand as well as the scope of Chinese economic interests.

"China is not the only external security provider of note on the continent. The US, Russia, France, the UK and the UAE - whether militaries, arms sellers or private security firms - are on a par with China with regards to the protection of their interests," he said.

As China seeks a bigger role in the continent's security, France has recently faced backlash in some African countries like Mali, where earlier this year it announced it would withdraw its forces after a deployment of nearly 10 years.

Its place is slowly being taken up by Russia, mostly from the Wagner mercenary group.

Russia, the continent's largest supplier of military arms and weapons, had been making inroads into the African security sector but its operations have slowed since its invasion of Ukraine.

The US has been reducing its forces in Africa, more so during Donald Trump's tenure as president when Washington pulled back from some security activities. Under President Joe Biden, though, Washington is trying to reverse some of these decisions, as in Somalia.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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