By Zara Riaz
Since the birth of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in 1996, Chinese presence across the African continent has grown at a tremendous pace. China recently surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner, such that trade between China and African nations stood at $200 billion in 2013. The gap between the United States and China in trade levels is expected to widen to $400 billion by 2020, as Premier Li promised earlier this year. The increased Chinese presence in Africa marks a shift in the dynamics of development assistance, as China’s aid is free from the political stipulations traditional donors normally impose on African governments.
For decades, China’s foreign policy has been marked by an emphasis on the promotion of state sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other nations. African leaders, free to veer away from policies that promote democracy and utilize free markets as the sole catalyzers of growth, embrace their relationships with Chinese trading partners for their pragmatic rather than ideological underpinnings. As African leaders embrace this model that shields domestic politics from international meddling, Western aid donors criticize this non-interference approach on the grounds that it not only refuses to address problems of governmental accountability and capacity essential for development, but it also allows abusive governments to receive funds without repercussion.
Although principles of non-interference serve as the cornerstones of Chinese aid and investment, the country’s continuously growing presence in Africa proves that even China cannot remain completely separated from its aid partners’ political situations. In some cases, deteriorating security conditions have led China to veer away from its traditionally apolitical responses in the hopes of establishing and protecting unfettered access to natural resources. In 2011, Chinese ambassador to the United Nations Li Baodong expressed concern over U.N. Security Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, in stating that the U.N. needed to “respect the sovereignty, independence, unification, and territorial integrity” of Libya. Despite this statement, China abstained rather than veto the resolution. Additionally, China dispatched combat troops to Mali in 2013 to help de-escalate mounting tensions in the country’s northern regions. While China has long served as one of the biggest contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions, its troops in Mali marked the first instance its own forces appeared on the front lines rather than in a supporting role.
Perhaps the most evident exception to China’s non-interference policy is its role in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. Beijing undoubtedly has a vested interest in the young country’s security, with 5% of its crude oil flowing from South Sudan. Since the onset of the current conflict, not only has much of the oil production shut down (for a second time since South Sudan’s secession in 2011), but China has also had to evacuate some of its personnel due to safety reasons. China recently received the backing of the United States, Britain, France, and other powers in a resolution adopted last May that calls on peacekeepers to help deter violence against civilians, particularly those working at oil installations. Although the intention is to protect civilians and oil interests, the mission can have the unintended consequence of aiding the foreign nation’s government by protecting its oil resources and thus undermining the role of the U.N. as a neutral international actor.
Even more, Chinese leaders are displaying an unusual willingness to engage diplomatically in South Sudan’s conflict. The Chinese special envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, offered to mediate the conflict, adding that China should be engaging in more peace and security operations for any conflict unfolding within a trade partner’s borders. China’s foreign ministry called on “relevant parties in South Sudan to resolve their issues by pushing forward political dialogue [to] achieve reconciliation.” This type of political engagement contrasts starkly with China’s response to the crisis in Darfur, as it abstained from a series of U.N. resolutions calling for sanctions against Omar al-Bashir’s regime. Only when it realized its global image was at stake with the upcoming 2008 Olympic games did it pressure Khartoum to accept the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
This increasingly political role in crises across Africa, most notably in the current political escalation in South Sudan, underlines an increasing number of exceptions to the rule of non-interference in China’s foreign policy. While it may appear as if the country is demonstrating to the international community its capability of taking on a greater role to protect international security, it is unlikely that this newfound role as a mediator will last after oil flows are restored.
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