Chinese naval officers Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Harder edge to soft power

By By Peter Guest | Published:  28 December, 2009

China’s growing commitment to UN peacekeeping could hint at Beijing’s willingness to take on a greater role in African security

The 2009 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation has ended with a promise from Beijing of $10bn in concessional loans over the next three years – twice the commitment at the previous summit in 2006. However, alongside the headline figures was an indication that China’s interest would not stop at economic cooperation, but would seek to more actively cooperate on security and peacebuilding on the continent.

Chinese officials at Focac attempted to address some of the common criticisms and concerns, stating publicly that Beijing’s interest is neither solely related to its desire for natural resources – which do underpin a lot of investments in the continent – nor is it part of a grand plan to establish a hegemony to counter so-called Western influence. China is understandably concerned about its international image, but today Beijing finds itself in a peculiar situation, facing on one hand an instinctive fear within some Western policy circles over its growing assertiveness on the international stage, and on the other, repeated calls from the US to shoulder more of the burden on global issues. On his recent trip to Asia, US president Barack Obama called for China to weigh in on Iran’s nuclear programme and the continued violence in Afghanistan.

Such calls are not new. Mr Obama’s predecessor similarly asked for China to take on more responsibility. But with the countries’ relative fortunes having changed, and China’s engagement in the developing world having increased, these questions seem to be of greater international interest. As Beijing’s involvement in Africa grows and deepens, how does it manage the political and security aspects of its engagement? Is it inevitable that Beijing is drawn into discussions on security, and eventually, more complex questions of sovereignty?


“My personal opinion is that there is a logical dynamic of self-interest that is going to propel China’s engagement in African security concerns,” says Sarah Raine, a research associate at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies and an expert on China’s relationship with Africa. “The problem is that China is probably quite rightly concerned and sensitive about its image, in how it goes about doing this. Projecting and propelling economic engagement is something that China specialises in, feels comfortable in doing… It’s obviously increasingly comfortable with political engagement – it doesn’t hesitate to refer to these partnerships [with African countries] as strategic,” she explains. However, where security fits into that strategic vision is not yet clear – in the West or in Beijing itself.

Chinese foreign policy since the 1950s has kept a dogmatic devotion to international respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference, sanctified in the “Pancha Shila” – the five principles of peaceful coexistence that were laid out in a 1954 treaty with India. Since then, interpretations of non-interference have admittedly been sometimes nuanced and sometimes overtly pragmatic, but the core doctrine has rarely been challenged.

Despite this, China has not absented itself from international security concerns. Since the turn of the century, the country has dramatically increased its commitment to UN peacekeeping operations. By August 2009, the number of Chinese soldiers, observers and police in UN operations was over 2,100, around 20 times its commitments in 2000. Today its contribution of personnel is higher than any other permanent member of the security council. “That, in China’s mind, doesn’t conflict with non-intervention, because you have proper UN authorisation to go there and to keep the peace,” explains Yiyi Lu, associate fellow in the Asia Programme at Chatham House.

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