China's African Engagement: Advancing Multilateralism | 作者: Paul Pryce | 时间: 2015-02-15 | 责编: Li Minjie
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Paul Pryce[1]




      While holding the office of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao advanced the idea of “China’s peaceful rise,” which emphasizes China’s commitment to refrain from violent confrontation. Adherence to this principle can help positively reshape the international order, transitioning international politics from a Westphalian system characterized by violent competition. Advocating multilateralism in international relations is an effective policy tool for China to achieve this goal. Perhaps the best region where one can see the benefits of China’s multilateralism is Africa. This paper will examine to what extent China’s Africa policy can be a model of engagement for other international actors. Furthermore, will this policy shape international norms in the 21st century?


      The African Situation


      The continent of Africa is on course to achieve tremendous levels of economic growth in the next few decades, prompting such figures as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the current Chairperson of the African Union Commission, to predict that the 21st century will in fact be ‘the African Century’. Others, such as Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Hannah Serwah Tetteh, have predicted that Africa will be free of armed conflict by 2020. Regardless of whether the member states of the African Union (AU) can find the means by which to achieve these incredibly ambitious objectives, it is clear that Africa will be important in the determination of international order in the coming decades, particularly as power shifts from the ‘West’ to the emerging Global South.

It is in this sense that Africa can serve as a litmus test. African security institutions remain relatively weak, limiting the agency of leading African powers like Nigeria, Ethiopia or South Africa. But the behaviour of other international actors toward Africa is a powerful indicator of how they perceive the use of force and how international politics should ultimately be organized. The results of such a reflection on the behaviour of external actors on this continent are deeply concerning.

In the aftermath of the Malian civil war, French forces embarked on Operation Barkhane. Comprised of 3,000 soldiers and headquartered in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, Barkhane freely roams across the borders of several countries which were once French colonies: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. This operation is not conducted under the auspices of the AU, the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), or any other international body. Although initially welcomed by the countries of the region when the operation was originally launched in July 2014, Barkhane is essentially a unilateral intervention by France. The United States also routinely undermines the sovereignty of African nations, establishing a drone base in Niamey, Niger and deploying small teams of special forces to at least twelve countries ranging widely across the continent.

This behaviour by the US, France, and other countries suggests a willingness to use force unilaterally and a narrow conception of state interests. But China has proven to be the exception to the rule, providing a very positive example on how force can be wielded for the betterment of the international community. Whereas Operation Barkhane serves French interests above all else, even to the detriment of the Sahelian countries’ security, China limited its role to the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), which derived its legal mandate from UN Security Council Resolution 2085. In fact, between 1993 and 2005, China participated in UN operations in Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.[2]

This was not a limited period in Chinese foreign policy either. Rather, it could be said that multilateralism has been a consistent theme in China’s actions toward Africa for decades. Even as Western states become increasingly unilateral in the pursuit of their “war on terror”, China has deepened its involvement in UN missions. Initial forays into African peacekeeping saw only modest contributions, such as the deployment of a few dozen Chinese troops as part of the UN Operation in Mozambique (ONUMOZ) in 1993-1994. But China has expanded its role, such that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will deploy more than 700 troops in early 2015 as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh continue to provide the greatest proportion of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, but the degree of Chinese involvement has clearly risen in the past twenty years.


The Logistics of Intervention


The already extensive degree of Chinese involvement in African peace support missions is also likely to continue to rise, potentially allowing China to surpass the South Asian countries and become the leading contributor to such multilateral operations. Strategic airlift is a challenge for many countries, particularly in Africa, as there is a lack of sufficient roadways by which troops and supplies can be transported. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has employed the Ilyushin Il-76, a popular Russian model of transport aircraft, to transport troops to conflict areas in the past. But development is underway for a domestically built strategic transport, the Xian Y-20 or “Kunpeng”. Although the Y-20 still relies on Russian built engines, it incorporates 3-D printing technology and other new techniques in order to achieve some impressive results. For example, the expected payload of the Y-20 is 66 tonnes, whereas the various configurations of the Il-76 are capable of transporting between 42 and 48 tonnes. Furthermore, the Y-20 has a longer range, allowing a Y-20 taking off from airbases in China’s Xinjiang province to reach as far as Cairo, Egypt before needing to refuel.

Currently, there are only three prototypes of the Y-20 and full introduction of this aircraft into the PLAAF still remains a few years off. But as the Y-20 enters service, the logistics of Chinese operations in Africa will be greatly simplified. Currently, an Il-76 transporting troops and equipment from China to a conflict area in West Africa would have to refuel once at an airbase in Pakistan or Iran before potentially refuelling again in Ethiopia or some other East African transport hub. As previously mentioned, the Y-20 would only to refuel at an Egyptian airbase or some other hub of similar distance. In short, not only will China be able to send greater numbers of troops on UN operations, but China will also be able to deploy much more rapidly than most major contributors.

China has also advanced norms of multilateralism through various maritime operations. Not only contributing to traditional peacekeeping operations, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has set a powerful example for other emerging powers by aiding in the fight against piracy. Much as the EU and NATO have deployed maritime forces to combat Somali pirates, PLAN vessels also patrol the Gulf of Aden to secure international shipping routes.[3]  Approximately 90% of the world’s traded goods pass along these routes, and so PLAN’s role is vital to the health of the global economy. Although NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the EU’s own Operation Atalanta comprise the bulk of the international response to Somali piracy, China’s role in this area is also increasing. For example, a planned permanent military base in Djibouti will grant China both the capacity to help Djibouti defend its sovereignty in a volatile region but will also improve monitoring of the Gulf of Aden. China’s Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan, also visited Djibouti in February 2014, indicating how seriously China regards its relationship with the small East African country.

Unlike the US drone base in Niger, the Djiboutian base is not intended to facilitate targeted killings. As Ambassador Zhang Yishan, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, made clear in a number of statements in 2004, China is very concerned by the implications targeted killings may have on international stability. [4] Rather, the scope of the Djiboutian base seems largely limited to the surveillance of nearby waterways, improving the response time of Chinese vessels in the region to pirate attacks against civilian freighters. At the same time, China is investing in Djibouti’s capacity for self-defence, as opposed to fostering a relationship of dependence. China has already provided substantial numbers of assault rifles to arm Djiboutian infantry units, and a defence agreement signed by the two countries in 2014 will see further assistance rendered on procurement issues. For example, the Djiboutian Air Force may receive Chinese-manufactured aircraft and will most certainly receive offshore patrol vessels, allowing Djibouti to participate in regional counter-piracy efforts.


The Multilateral Order


The early years of the US’ “war on terror” contributed to the erosion of multilateralism in international politics. Rather than relying upon the support of the UN, American policymakers sought to justify their actions by forming “coalitions of the willing,” comprised of a largely random array of other countries open to supporting US military action in a given state. The consequences of this unilateralism are still being felt. Out of the Hobbesian anarchy – a perpetual fear of “war of all against all” – some international actors have modelled their behaviour on the American example, such as the Russian Federation’s military actions first in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then later in Crimea. But China’s focus on multilateralism has gone some way toward restoring norms of international behaviour that were initially taken for granted in the years following the Cold War.

The US extended an invitation for China to participate in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest biannual maritime exercise. Such an exercise, when it includes all the relevant stakeholders, can serve as a confidence and security-building measure (CSBM). CSBMs are intended to build mutual trust among actors, reducing the risk of armed conflict and allowing for tensions to be addressed constructively. Although American policymakers decided to exclude Russia from participation in the 2014 edition, the invitation to China is an encouraging sign as it indicates American policymakers increasingly favour China’s position that military exercises not be oriented toward a specific country as this undermines mutual trust and limits the practicality of the exercise as a CSBM. The EU has long understood this position and recently engaged with China in March 2014 as part of a large-scale counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden.

Beyond the US’ encouraging gesture, China’s position has also been adopted by emerging powers in the Global South. For example, in October and November 2014, maritime forces from Brazil, India, and South Africa will jointly take part in the fourth edition of Exercise Ibsamar. Started in 2008, this exercise is not oriented toward any particular security threat but is officially intended to strengthen relations between the militaries of these three powers, functioning to some extent as a CSBM while also refraining from provoking any other powers. This may be due in some part to the lack of common security threats facing these three countries as they are distributed quite far apart in the Southern Hemisphere. But Ibsamar provides another powerful example of multilateralism for emerging powers. Ibsamar also coincides with such initiatives as the IBSA Dialogue Forum, which encourages cooperation in other fields between the governments of India, Brazil, and South Africa. [5]

Clearly, China’s opposition to provoking exercises has started a trend, counter-acting the confrontational atmosphere that permeated international relations at the start of the 21st century. This is an interesting development as many scholars previously theorized that the EU would shape international relations through its normative power. The broad appeal of the EU’s principles and its lack of reliance on military force was assumed to generate a kind of “soft power” that could grant the EU the capacity to determine the rules of international politics. But the failure of the EU to adequately address a series of financial crises among its member states, as well as the EU’s increasing military role through the formation of EU Battle Groups, has significantly undermined Europe’s soft power appeal. It is unclear whether European leaders will be able to restore the EU’s image as a source of peace and prosperity, though the prospects look grim amid the infighting of its member states.

This sudden decline in European influence has led some scholars to propose that China is the normative power of the 21st century.[6] This is partially attributed to the way in which China interacts with emerging powers, as outlined previously. But China’s power to shape norms also stems from the attractiveness of its governing principles, the narrative of its own rise, and other such aspects. The idea of a “Chinese Dream” advanced by Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, can enhance China’s soft power, particularly in developing countries. Previously, a so-called “European Dream” had taken hold in such regions. This narrative had broad appeal as Europe had risen from centuries of warfare to enjoy a period of collective effort, peace, and mutual prosperity. But with deepening inequality taking hold in Europe and with war raging in nearby Ukraine, the European Dream no longer seems credible. In contrast, the Chinese Dream has demonstrable success.

China’s peaceful rise and the Chinese Dream must be advanced hand in hand as these two concepts are mutually complementary. For example, those in developing countries who find the Chinese Dream appealing will be more inclined to support China’s foreign policy objectives and see China’s rise in prominence as a positive development. Without the appeal of the Chinese Dream, those in developing countries may be more prone to propaganda which casts China’s rise as aggressive or threatening. Advancing both concepts will ensure China articulates 21st century norms and that it can mould such regions as Africa for the better.




China is clearly advancing multilateral norms of behaviour in every forum and region, but most of all in Africa. The unilateral tendencies of the US and European countries will only serve to arouse suspicions in Africa, leading the diverse peoples of the continent to regard the “war on terror” as a phenomenon which undermines African stability. In order to avoid being regarded as neo-colonial, American and European policymakers must pursue multilateral solutions to this century’s most prominent security threats, turning to the UN to make the case for intervention when and where necessary. Engaging with China will also be integral to such interventions, especially as new technologies like the Xian Y-20 will allow China to play an even greater role in UN operations in Africa and elsewhere.

As has been discussed here, this combination of factors will lead China to emerge as the normative power of the 21st century, defining the rules and values of international politics. Therefore, scholars seeking to develop predictive models of behaviour in various regions of the world should look to dominant political narratives in China. Much as Hu Jintao introduced the idea of “China’s peaceful rise” and Xi Jinping articulated the Chinese Dream, future leaders in China will also advance ideas that will influence how nations interact.


 (Source: China International Studies,November/December, 2014(6))

[1] Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. Holding degrees in political science from the University of Calgary (Canada) and Tallinn University (Estonia), he has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.


[2]  Ian Taylor, “China’s Peacekeeping Efforts in Africa: Assessing the Contributions, Future Prospects, and Challenges,” in Thierry Tardy and Marco Wyss (eds.), Peacekeeping in Africa: The Evolving Security Architecture, New York: Routledge, 2014, pp.93-109.


[3]  Tullio Treves, “Piracy, Law of the Sea, and Use of Force: Developments off the Coast of Somalia,” in The European Journal of International Law Vol.20(2), 2009, pp. 399-414.


[4]  UN, “Security Council urged to condemn extrajudicial executions following Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader,” 19 April 2004.


[5]  Priya Chacko, “IBSA in the Foreign Policy of a Rising India,” in Sujata Patel and Tina Uys (eds.), Contemporary India and South Africa: Legacies, Identities, Dilemmas, New Delhi: Routledge, 2012, pp. 279-291.


[6]  For more on this, see: William Callahan and  Elena Barabantseva, China Orders the World: Normative Soft Power and Foreign Policy, Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.