According to Chinese political scientist Lanxin Xiang, there are three objectives of Chinese politics: the restoration of the past glory of China and the state; recalling the age-old desire for a rich and powerful modern China and maintaining social stability. Seen from Beijing’s point of view, Africa remains a political and economic question rather than a military and security issue, despite the mantra of “security and development”. However, the security dimension does exist and is even tending to increase, particularly because China is worried about the protection of its nationals in Africa, whose number is estimated today at one million people. In terms of resources (such as oil, zinc, iron, cobalt, copper, titanium, etc.) as well as from the commercial point of view, the development of the Chinese economy depends on Africa and therefore its stability is very crucial for China. The deployment of Chinese military forces in Africa responds to a growth in both security supply and demand.
The Sahel comprises a geographical area that covers five countries of West Africa including Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad, working as an organization at the sub-regional level called G5-Sahel, created on December 16, 2014, in Nouakchott. The region is largely covered by sand and is in the grip of a security crisis that threatens the lives of the people struggling with forced displacement, and massacres with a very heavy toll on human life. This instability has also affected the industrial infrastructure of the region which has reached the brink of collapse, especially since the Malian disaster of 2012.
China’s Sahel overtures:
For a very long time, Chinese policy was based on significant economic investments in the manufacturing industries of the Sahel countries. To this end, the creation, two decades ago of a mixed company between the Government of Mali and the Chinese Light Industry Company for Techno-Economic Cooperation with Abroad (SUKALA s.a) was set up which is today one of the largest industrial companies in Mali and has generated more than 35 million dollars for the Malian State in taxes and duties.
During the1980s China was strongly involved in Sugar Complex of the Upper Kala (SUKALA), Malian Textile Company (COMATEX), Mali Tannery Company (TAMALI), Malian Pharmaceutical Factory (UMPP), Popular Pharmacy of Mali (PPM) were subject to this type of intervention.
In Niger, the main areas of investment are energy ($5.12 million); mining ($620 million) and real estate ($140 million), other aspects of cooperation include: the construction of stadiums and schools, medical missions, military cooperation, infrastructure (roads, bridges, rolling stock, thermal power plants).
Malis still struggling to have a legitimate democratic leader elected through free and transparent elections and is floundering in a transition that is the result of two military putsches. In Burkina Faso, the power of President Rock Marc Kaboré succumbs to a great social protest and a soldier’s mutiny on January 23, 2022, under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo DAMIBA, president of the junta that took power on January 24, 2022. Among all these countries mentioned above, only Niger remains the one that maintains a “relative stability”, with its successful democratic alternation on February 21, 2021, which carried Mohamed Bazoum as President of the Republic with a foiled coup attempt on the night of 30 to 31 March 2021 even.
Nevertheless, without being as weak as their neighbours in the Central Sahel, the capabilities of the Mauritanian and Chadian armies are far from exceptional. Renowned for the quality of its intelligence services and rapid intervention units, Mauritania has still not been directly involved in significant fighting for four years. This is important to note as these are the two countries of the G5 Sahel organization that have a certain capacity to respond to the terrorist threats, hence for four years, they have not been directly involved in this scourge.
However, amidst such terse geopolitical realities in a situation of rejection and lack of coordination and results, France and the other European partners are in a situation of weariness and attempting to decide whether or not to reduce their footprints with the G5-Sahel joint force. This will only open further room for Chinese entry.
On the military and security front, China generally contributes to UN peacekeeping operations, for example in Mali as part of MINUSMA where it deployed 403 peacekeepers, including one killed and 12 others wounded in an attack in Gao in the north of the country.
China pledged more than $45 million to the G5-Sahel joint force in early 2019 and $1.5 million for the operation of the permanent secretariat, in other cases it allied with Russia to block some resolutions initiated by other UN Security Council members on Mali, in addition to the supply of several military equipment respectively to the countries of the G5-Sahel and more generally to those of the African Union.
THE GEOSTRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS OF CHINESE COOPERATION IN THE SAHEL
The relationship between the Sahel countries and China has evolved over several years of cooperation through investments in various fields whose interests continue to benefit all the different parties. For the former, it allows them to have diversified diplomacy and cheap goods and for the latter to establish its economic and political power in these developing countries. For China, thanks to globalization which has allowed it to liberalize its economy as well as the new law of 2015 that allows the Chinese military and police to intervene abroad as part of so-called “anti-terrorist” missions to protect its economic and human interests, Beijing has created strong political clout in the region that it has transformed into infrastructure according to the needs of these countries (as in Djibouti) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In addition to these donations, it has carved out a significant share of the public procurement of these States compared to other powers in the West within the framework of bilateral agreements; several achievements have been carried out mutually that continue to benefit the interests of each party thanks to the low cost of Chinese products.
Beijing’s goals in Africa are threefold, with the first being to get acquainted with uncharted territory. These operations allow it to improve its operational capabilities and test new weapons, such as infantry fighting vehicles and 95-1 assault rifles. Exercises are also being conducted at its military base in Djibouti, inaugurated in 2017, covering several terrains: such as the desert of sub-Saharan Africa, urban areas and sea lanes.
“This is one of the least threatening ways for the Chinese military to practice in real theatres of armed conflict,” says Obert Hodzi, an international relations researcher at the University of Helsinki and author of The End of China’s Non-intervention Policy in Africa”.
This is why the Chinese government is seeking to consolidate ties between the PLA and the African General Staff. At the beginning of the summer, the first China-Africa Security and Defense Forum organized in Beijing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense was an opportunity to define the axes of this cooperation and in particular the issue of “mutual assistance for security”, terms that appeared in 2015 in the second white paper on Africa, which now includes the training of soldiers and the sale of arms.
China’s influence in the regional security atmosphere
China has even gone so far as to use its economic power to force governments to give it special treatment, as was the case in Zimbabwe, or to defend politicians favourable to its interests as in Zambia or Zimbabwe with the fall of Mugabe. China behaves there like many Western countries that it has previously criticized.
The reason is the defence of its military-industrial lobby. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has interests in hotels, banking and real estate. With it, China cannot help but mix trade and politics. Companies, such as ZTE or Huawei in telecommunications, are likely to have to respond to requests or orders from the PLA or the party if the need arises. Beijing is thus drawing its new diplomacy, multilaterally via the UN, and bilaterally by maintaining privileged relations with the Sahelian states or political parties sensitive to its arguments to shale up traditional powers such as France and especially the United States in the region.
Dara Cheick is a student at the Faculty of Administrative and Political Sciences of Bamako (Mali) and a research assistant at the Timbuktu Center for Strategic Studies for the Sahel. He can be reached on Twitter @DaraCheick