A Bloody Setback for China’s Africa Surge
Beijing learns that peacekeeping is dangerous
by KEVIN KNODELL
On May 31, a rocket attack in the Water Tower neighborhood of the Malian town of Gao struck Chinese peacekeepers. The attack killed 29-year-old First Sgt. Shen Lianlian and injured several of his fellow soldiers. A separate strike the same day killed one French national and two Malians.
Beijing dispatched an investigative team of soldiers and diplomats to Gao. China’s ambassador to Mali, Lu Huiying, told Chinese media the team is to assist the United Nations as it probes the attack.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali is currently the most dangerous in the world.
In addition to monitoring the shaky detente between the Malian military and northern Taureg rebels, peacekeepers must contend with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The terrorist group is a wildcard that doesn’t play by any of the rules the other actors do.
Eighty-one peacekeepers have died in Mali since the mission began in 2013. Shen is the first Chinese fatality.
Historically, the Chinese military has sent medical personnel and engineers to Africa in support roles. However, the nature and structure of China’s peacekeeping missions are changing — in both size and the ability to fight.
Beijing’s deployment to Mali in 2013 brought a much larger combat component than previous Chinese peacekeeping missions.
In 2015, China deployed an infantry battalion to South Sudan. It is Beijing’s largest troop deployment — combat ready or otherwise — to a U.N. mission to date. The 700-troop contingent is equipped with drones, armored fighting vehicles, mortars and heavy machine guns.
In May 2015, the Chinese troops got their first taste of action when they intervened to stop a riot in one of three refugee camps near their barracks in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. The riot resulted in two deaths and around 100 injuries before the Chinese troops stopped it.
“China has gone from being a nation that voiced its opposition to international peacekeeping efforts to one that has committed a fully equipped infantry battalion, whose troop strength and capabilities equal that of a reinforced battalion in time of war,” analyst Cindy Hurst wrote in a special essay the May 2016 issue of O.E. Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.
“This change of heart has many observers questioning China’s possible intentions and motives.”
Chinese officials typically tout a policy of non-interference in the politics of African nations. However, there are occasional signs of shrewd politicking.
After the Liberian civil war, China deployed military engineers to build roads and infrastructure in the small west African Nation — conspicuously after Monrovia dropped its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Many commentators have been particularly critical of Chinese policy in both Sudan and South Sudan, both places China has sent peacekeepers. Chinese weapons have routinely been spotted in South Sudan. And human rights groups have accused China of running interference for Sudan during the height of the Darfur Genocide.
Beijing eventually agreed to authorize a peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region — and even sent troops. But the presence of Chinese peacekeepers angered several Darfuri rebel groups. Some rebels threatened to attack them, though thus far no Chinese troops have died in Darfur.
China has deep economic interests in both Sudans, having invested billions of dollars in their energy infrastructures, particularly oil production. Out of five major oil consortiums in Sudan and South Sudan, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is the majority stakeholder in at least three of them, according to O.E. Watch.
“While oil plays a significant role in the economies of both Sudans, it is equally important to China, which must find the right balance between diplomacy and security in its international relationships to ensure supplies of critical resources do not dry up,” Hurst wrote.
At times, these facilities have come under attack.
“With the growing numbers of Chinese living in Africa, they become more and more subject to negative incidents, just like Westerners,” former U.S. diplomat David Shinn told War Is Boring last year. “[China is] finding that they have to be somewhat more innovative in the way that they protect their own interests and nationals on the continent.”
Last year, China signed a 10-year leasing agreement with Djibouti — a country that hosts a sizable U.S. military presence — to build Beijing’s first military logistics hub on the continent. It was a major milestone for the Chinese military, which until now has not maintained sizable overseas bases.
But Shen’s death is a wake-up call for Beijing. Though China stands to gain tremendously in its ever-growing engagement with Africa, it’s not without risks. Or losses.
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