Following reports that the US is planning to relocate troops away from West Africa, could China step in to fill the gap?

Recent reports indicate that the United States is weighing up the option of significantly reducing its military and security presence in West Africa as part of a wider defense review. This could include closing or transferring a $110m drone base in Niger and reducing military and intelligence support for French military operations in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso according to the New York Times. This is in sharp contrast to the French, who have this month announced a further increase of 220 soldiers to its existing deployment of 4,500. Overall, the security picture in the region is tense, with the Council for Foreign relations suggesting that there are almost 20, 000 local and international troops deployed to attempt to combat the rise of Islamic State and other extremist groups.

 Of these, China has largely kept its military involvement limited to official United Nations (UN) Peace-Keeping Operations (PKOs). For example, with 421 military personnel currently stationed in Mali, China is the largest non-African contributor to UN PKOs in the region. France contributes significantly more personnel however it often does so through the deployment of its own unique force to complement the UN PKOs.

Libya: a flashpoint

Why is the US’ potential reduction in troop numbers important for the region? And given the US drawdown, what role can China play in the future stability of West Africa? Despite the UN PKOs in Mali and the Western Sahara, one key flashpoint at present is the security situation in Libya. After the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the 2014 elections, the country has been divided between the internationally recognized government of Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli, and that of Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army based in Tobruk. Against the backdrop of this fragmentation, there are fears that Islamic State and affiliated extremist groups may be able to gain a foothold in Libya.

After recent events in Syria, the international community is wary of this scenario. Germany recently hosted a summit to discuss a coordinated response to the current situation in Libya. China, the US, and France – along with other UNSC members and key regional allies – agreed to set up bi-monthly working groups to work towards a political solution, monitor and encourage a ceasefire of hostilities, and to ensure legitimate oil production. Yang Jiechi, China’s state councilor in charge of foreign affairs,  represented China at the meeting, and the Chinese government subsequently released a statement reiterating its commitment to the peace process in Libya.

In addition, China has signed numerous bi-lateral accords with western African states affirming its commitment to supporting peace and security on the continent. For example, China has twice reiterated its commitment to cooperate with France on UN PKOs, as well as to provide financing for these missions, by signing agreements in January of 2018 and March of 2019.

A multilateral revival?

While China is certainly contributing to existing PKOs in West Africa and indicating support for peace in its bilateral diplomacy, could we see heightened security collaboration in the space vacated by a US troop withdrawal?

A recent report by the Africa Center for Strategic studies suggests that some within  China believe it could be a “viable alternative” to western security partnerships in the region. The report cites, for example, developing ties between the PLA and the Burkina Faso military “which will likely feature training in counterterrorism and infrastructure development”.

Yet the report also suggests that Chinese security involvement may remain primarily within the parameters of the UN Peacekeeping deployments – helping to satisfy its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. For example, the report cites a Chinese program to upgrade its UN-accredited Peacekeeping Training Center – —administered by the Ministry of National Defense and designed to train soldiers—in order to train an additional 2000 international peacekeepers by the end of 2020.

This Chinese support would most likely be welcomed by West African leaders, who have warned that a US withdrawal of troops would lead to a significant reduction in regional security. The Washinton post recently quoted Tongolese President Gnassingbé as saying that, “If one actor leaves the chain it weakens the whole group”. Meanwhile, Senegalese President Macky Sall argued that a US troop withdrawal “would be a mistake, and it would be misunderstood by Africans”.

In the wake of a potential US drawback from the region, compounded by Chinese investment in the BRI in Africa, the possibility of increased Chinese security cooperation is highly likely. Yet all the signs suggest that Chinese involvement will take a different form to that left behind by western actors. Instead of direct bilateral cooperation and training agreements, perhaps we will see China continue its tendency to operate via multilateral institutions such as UN PKOs as a means of squaring its non-interventionist principles with its economic and soft power interests for bolstering security in the region.

As the US eyes a troop draw down it would be naïve to assume that China will simply plug the gap like-for-like. Rather than a US out, China in approach the evidence points to China adopting a more multilateral approach.

By Iain Millar. Spring 2020 China Program Intern