As the first China-Africa Peace and Security Forum came to a close last weekend, one possible question on the minds of many observers of China-Africa relations is whether this forum will produce peace in Africa or just papers for Africa and receipts for China. There is no shortage of challenges to peace and security across Africa, so its no surprise that African leaders are interested in what their global partners have to offer. The China-Africa Peace and Security forum is against the backdrop of President Xi’s 2018 pledge to channel investment toward a China-Africa Peace and Security Fund as well as military assistance and 50 programs on law and order, peacekeeping, anti-piracy and counter-terrorism.
China has for some years been Africa’s biggest trade partner, but some other factors to help understand China’s interest in peace and security in Africa includes the presence of large Chinese funded capital investment projects across the continent, the presence of infrastructure projects intimately connected to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and about one million Chinese live and work in Africa. “China is predominantly interested in consolidating its presence in Africa.” Political analyst Lina Benabdallah, who studies China’s Africa policies at Wake Forest University, told DW. She went on to add that China will also use the forum as an instrument to safeguard its economic interests on the continent.
The geopolitical implications of China’s diversification into peace and security in Africa remains to be seen: and it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of much broader objectives beyond China protecting its economic interests. Over the years, China has been expanding its presence in Africa’s security arena, it currently ranks second to Russia in terms of arms export to African armies. While to African countries this cooperation can contribute to peace, it is also an ideal platform for China to expand its military presence and market share even further, by offering similar weapons Africa buys from Russia, perhaps at a lower price point.
In December 2018, the Rwandan army displayed its Chinese-made PCL-09 self-propelled howitzer system and its HJ-9A “Red Arrow” anti-tank missiles. The Rwandan Defence Force’s use of the HJ-9A is the first known use of the missiles by a foreign country. Along with the spread of Chinese military footprint in Africa, China’s budding soft-power was in full display at the 25th Rwanda Liberation Day celebration in early July. The Rwandan Army was seen matching in a distinctly Chinese style and used mandarin to issue parade commands.
China’s Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe met with African representatives attending the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. He hailed the peace and security cooperation as an important pillar of China-Africa relations. Wei said China and Africa should make new progress in peace and security cooperation and contribute to the development of China-Africa comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership and an even closer China-Africa community with a shared future. African representatives in return expressed their willingness to work with China to deepen cooperation in such areas as escort missions, counter-terrorism, personnel training and joint exercises and training, so as to jointly safeguard peace and stability in Africa and the world at large.
There are many conflict hot-spots China-Africa cooperation can contribute to address insecurity in Africa. The Gulf of Guinea, on west Africa’s southern coast, is a good place to start. This maritime territory shared by a number of West and Central Africa countries has been described as the world’s most pirate-infested sea. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports 72 attacks last year on vessels at sea between Ivory Coast and Cameroon—up from 28 in 2014. Just days ago 10 Turkish sailors were kidnapped by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. A company statement cited by Turkish media said the ship was attacked by “pirates” on its way from Cameroon to the Ivory Coast. This notoriety impedes commercial activity and the free movement of goods between countries in the region.
The Gulf of Guinea not being a maritime chokepoint, the problem of piracy has been largely ignored by major powers. Nonetheless, piracy there threatens international trade and the economies of nations, not the economies of global powers with powerful navies, but of some West Africa and Central Africa countries. Nigeria is one of such countries, being Africa’s biggest economy and a major exporter of crude oil, Nigeria attracts a lot of commercial activity to the Gulf of Guinea. for Nigeria and its neighbours, the situation in the Gulf of Guinea has to change urgently for the sake of trade and economic security.
A maritime security arrangement between the navies of the Gulf of Guinea countries and China as a partner would go a long way in addressing the problem of piracy. This will support international trade in the region to the benefit of the countries directly affected and of course China. Being a major exporter of goods and commodities to West Africa, Chinese cargo ships stand to benefit from operating in a safer environment. Which therefore makes China-Africa cooperation on this matter a win-win.