Securing Africa: EU, US and China’s Strategic Competition and Cooperation

Written by | Monday, February 13th, 2017

The Europe, United States and China have all a great deal of common interest in Africa, which they cherish by building various forms of cooperation on African security issues. Despite growing strategic completion on the continent between the EU and US on the one hand, and China on the other, all three of them still have major economic interests on the continent, and thus they also have a stake at making Africa peaceful and stable to create a fruitful environment for foreign investment. Being the world’s major powers, they also carry international responsibility for security issues in less-developed African countries.

Chinese-American cooperation mostly takes place through multilateral platforms such as the United Nations peacekeeping missions. The most consistent forum for communication between both sides is, however, the US-China consultation on African affairs. As of 2016, the State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have held seven rounds of such bilateral consultations. In regards to the EU and China, there are almost 70 ongoing dialogues between both powers, mostly devoted to trade-related issues but an increasingly important part of the ‘first pillar’ (political dialogue) is devoted to EU-China security relations. The security dimension includes also some practical cooperation but since it is a relatively new phenomenon, it will need careful mutual nurturing to survive.

Until 2011, China maintained that much of the mutual dialogue with the US and EU was revolving around understanding each other’s priorities on the continent as well as their own priorities for their African policies. After the fifth round of the mutual consultations with the US, such wording vanished and it was replaced by the ‘positive comments by the US on the contribution China has made to African development in recent years’. Nevertheless, one consistent topic on the agenda has been ‘in-depth exchanges of opinions’ on the situation in Africa and key regional issues.

Although Washington and Beijing are rather eloquent about Africa, their actions do not necessarily follow from the rhetoric. In reality, the US and China cooperate multilaterally and their efforts focus on peacekeeping missions and conflict resolution. The US remains the largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, amounting to 28% of the $8.2bn annual budget, while China provides 2,262 peacekeepers, which is almost twice as large as the other Security Council countries’ contributions combined.

Both the US and China are further cooperating on strengthening the UN’s peacekeeping capability. Last September, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and his then American counterpart, Barack Obama, agreed that they would increase their “robust” peacekeeping commitments. Moreover, both sides continue learning from each other on peace operations such as in March 2016 when an eight-member US military observer delegation visited the Chinese peacekeeping infantry battalion in South Sudan.

Also in Brussels, there is acknowledgement of China’s expanding role in Africa and its importance in international peacekeeping – China has indicated its interest in a wider security role on several occasions, such as the 2011 evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya or chemical disarmament of Syria in 2014. China’s growing involvement in UN peacekeeping operations – a total of 24 operations between 1990 and 2015 including 2,720 Chinese peacekeepers deployed in 9 UN missions – which appeals to the EU’s emphasis on multilateral engagement, has paved the way for more concrete EU-China cooperation on anti-piracy operations. The main avenue for building the EU’s military-to-military cooperation with China, which is a relatively recent phenomenon, has been through anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean.

Aside from the navy operations, China has also deployed its army contingents to UN peacekeeping operations in Mali (MUNUSMA) and to South Sudan (UNMISS) in the last couple of years. This development is particularly remarkable in light of China’s traditional sensitivity towards interference in its own internal affairs and also those of other states and its traditional preference to confine its contributions to non-combat roles. The next decade or two will only reveal if China’s multilateral engagement serves as a platform for counterbalancing Western influence in Africa and in the UN and to reshape the underlying norms for peacekeeping operations.

Also, the US have both been active in combating piracy in the Horn of Africa and it is precisely the counter-piracy operation that has a great potential for Washington’s future mutual collaboration with China. EU-China security collaboration, especially in the military domain, is still at an early stage and the experience so far indicates a mixed picture for the future – intensified relations but also many challenges lying ahead. In any case, the three major powers – EU, EU and China – have the necessary resources and commitment to work together and eventually build on this experience for more cooperation in the security area in many parts of Africa.

‘EU-China Relations: New Directions, New Priorities’ – a Discussion Paper edited by Shada Islam – Friends of Europe.

(The study can be downloaded here)


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