- President looks to build clout and protect business interests
- Visiting days after Chinese executives killed in Mali attack
To see China’s evolving foreign policy, look to Africa, where a desire to protect economic investment is leading to a revision of the country’s hands-off approach to the internal affairs of other nations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping begins a five-day African visit on Tuesday that he’ll use to showcase China’s expanding role as a protector of regional security, as well as a provider of infrastructure and consumer of resources. China has pledged $100 million of military aid for the African Union, sent an infantry battalion to support peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan and deployed frigates to fight piracy off the Somali coast, leading the country to consider building its first overseas naval resupply station in Djibouti.
“Such initiatives are a clear departure from Beijing’s aversion to military or security intervention in Africa,” Lyle Morris, a project associate at the RAND Corp., said, citing in particular the military assistance Xi pledged in September. “The announcement suggests a rethinking of Chinese priorities on the continent, and marks a recognition that China’s participation in conflict resolution will be an unavoidable byproduct of increased Chinese engagement.”
The moves are part of broader policy shift, as Xi works to build geopolitical influence for the world’s second-largest economy without abandoning a decades-old vow against interfering in other countries. The new approach to Africa -- a major hot spot for Chinese investment -- could illustrate how China tries to strike that balance globally as its business interests expand.
The security moves help China counter questions about its commitment to Africa’s long-term development after complaints about the fairness of deals trading resources for infrastructure and the level of local labor used by the more than 2,500 Chinese companies on the continent. Xi also must protect an estimated 2 million Chinese working in some of Africa’s most unstable areas -- a concern highlighted by a Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, that left at least 20 people dead, including three China Railway Construction Corp. executives.
The Mali attack showed that “China’s vast business interests in Africa face an uncertain future if security issues are not tackled,” said Shu Yunguo, director of the Center for African Studies at Shanghai Normal University.
China’s must weigh whether the risks of taking a bigger role in such danger zones are worth the benefits. In Syria, for instance, the country might provide some logistical support to an international coalition against the Islamic State, but is seen as unlikely to commit forces or back a proposal that undermines the government.
Xi is expected to cast China’s security role in Africa as limited and within the framework of international organizations. “In the long run, the international community and the United Nations should support African countries in increasing their own capacity in keeping peace and stability so that African issues can be addressed in an African way,” he told the UN General Assembly in September.
Xi arrived Tuesday in Zimbabwe for a state visit hosted by President Robert Mugabe, a longtime Chinese ally who currently heads the African Union. He’ll then receive a similar reception in South Africa before participating in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg on Friday and Saturday -- the first such top-level gathering to be held in Africa. Trade relations and development projects will top the agenda, but talks are also planned on joint anti-terrorism efforts.
“We cannot have development without security,” said Ghulam Asmal, director of international partnerships at South Africa’s Department of International Relations. “There is a realization that security cannot be left out of the equation.”
While China is Africa’s biggest trading partner, with two-way flows exceeding $220 billion last year, the pace of investment has slowed. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce said last month that the country’s investment in Africa fell by more than 40 percent in the first half of 2015. Premier Li Keqiang has pledged to increase spending since 2000 to about $100 billion by the end of the decade, compared with $30 billion as of last year.
Xi will propose “new thoughts, new policies and new ideas” for developing ties with Africa, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters Thursday. He’s expected to discuss plans to build a high-speed rail network in Nigeria and regional aviation links and highways, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
While in South Africa, Xi will pursue cooperation on energy, finance, infrastructure, human resources, marine issues and production capacity, the Chinese president wrote in a piece published Tuesday on the front page of the Johannesburg-based Star newspaper.
Africa wants to convince China to process more raw materials locally and provide greater access to Chinese markets for its manufactured and agricultural goods, Asmal said. “What we are asking for is development and socioeconomic upliftment,” he said.
In building security ties with African leaders, China’s also cultivating a base of global diplomatic support, said David Shinn, who teaches African affairs at George Washington University. African nations constitute more than a quarter of the UN General Assembly.
“China is approaching Africa a little differently than it used to,” Shinn said. “It’s not reached the point yet where you could say they have abandoned the principle of non-interference, but it certainly has reached the point of a redefinition of what non-interference means.”