Chinese peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Chinese peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In its annual report on China’s military power, released on Tuesday, the US Department of Defense writes that Beijing’s construction of a military base in Djibouti is part of a broader plan to increase the reach and influence of Chinese armed forces outside their traditional sphere of action in East Asia.

While this assertion reflects the Pentagon’s concern over China’s expanding defense capabilities, the European Union for its part could look favorably on the Chinese military having a presence in the Horn of Africa.

EU countries and institutions have been dealing with massive flows of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa for years. There were 181,000 illegal border crossings on the central Mediterranean route – which human traffickers generally use to smuggle African clandestine migrants into Europe – in 2016, according to the EU Board and Coast Guard Agency.

Migrant pressure on southern Europe is severely undermining social cohesion across the Old Continent, as well as the EU’s capacity to act on the world stage as a unitary actor. As mass migration from Africa is a historical phenomenon that cannot be contained or managed in the long run, European leaders are more and more persuaded of the need to tackle its roots causes, which are African political instability and economic underdevelopment.

Strengthening the Sino-European cooperation in Africa

In particular, the EU aims to improve Africa’s security environment, as the continent is mired in civil strife, ethno-religious conflicts, terrorism and border disputes.

In doing so, the EU has explicitly called for more coordination with China, which is a prominent economic player in Africa. On June 2, at the end of the 19th EU-China Summit in Brussels, European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU and China agreed on broadening and strengthening their security partnership in Africa.

EU leaders believe that the European bloc and China could work together on crisis settlement and building African peace and security capacities

By some estimates over one million Chinese nationals live and work in the African continent. From 2005 to 2016, China invested US$224 billion in sub-Saharan countries, the China Global Investment Tracker reports. The European bloc is aware of China’s need to protect its own assets and citizens on African soil and is trying to leverage it to secure Chinese help on Europe’s southern flank.

EU leaders believe that the European bloc and China could work together on crisis settlement and building African peace and security capacities. Since 2011, European and Chinese naval vessels have been cooperating on counter-piracy in the Arabian Sea. In the EU’s view, this maritime collaboration should be extended to peacekeeping and capacity-building operations in the African continent.

Focus on the Sahel region

China’s Defense Ministry claims the Djibouti base – which should be completed by the end of this year – is designed to support Chinese armed forces’ participation in United Nations-led peacekeeping missions in Africa and in escort operations in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, as well as to provide humanitarian assistance to local populations.

Beijing’s drive to develop its peacekeeping capabilities may match the EU’s interest in stabilizing the Sahel region, the main transit point for migrants trying to reach the European continent from sub-Saharan Africa and a hotbed for jihadi groups that control drug and human-trafficking routes.

On June 5, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini announced that the European bloc was going to allocate $56 million to fund a new African joint military force in the Sahel region, which would bring together 10,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

The move is not irrelevant to China’s interests in the area. A 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping contingent is engaged in Mali to help French military forces quell a rebellion waged by Islamist and Tuareg militants since 2012. Beijing, which is the largest supplier of troops to UN peacekeeping operations among the five permanent UN Security Council members, has 400 peacekeepers deployed in Mali. In May 2016, a Chinese soldier was killed and four others were injured in a rebel attack in the Malian territory.

Alignment of interests

The EU and China could build a stronger security cooperation upon their alignment of interests in Africa. If that happens, tensions will increase in the already tense transatlantic relationships. US President Donald Trump sees the migration challenge only through the lens of national security and probably will not buy the EU’s motivations for seeking China’s contribution to African stability.

Not to mention that to the Pentagon, China basically exploits peacekeeping operations to improve its international image, acquire operational experience for its military personnel and find opportunities to gather more intelligence on the ground.

For US generals, in other words, humanitarian assistance is only a smokescreen to conceal Beijing’s ambition to expand its overseas presence.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.