Is Beijing’s Non-Interference Policy History? How Africa is Changing China

Research paper

The rapid intensification of ties between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Africa’s 54 countries is of considerable geopolitical significance. It is impossible to understand how the PRC has sustained year-on-year breathtaking growth without factoring in the contribution of African commodity exports and the profits reaped by Chinese enterprises through African demand for consumer goods, construction projects, and information and communication technology services. An extensive literature analyses the China–Africa story: an initial shouting match pitted those who cast Beijing as leading the re-colonization of the continent1against authors praising China as Africa’s savior at a time when the West would only engage through the lens of the Global War on Terror and rock star-driven charity.2 In recent years, a more nuanced conversation has underscored historical dimensions to the China– Africa relationship, exploring change and continuity in Africa’s place in the global political economy, and deconstructing the myth that all Chinese actors—such as PRC embassies, state-owned enterprises, private firms, and migrating individuals—share a unity of purpose, guided by a grand plan hatched by the Chinese Communist Party.3

Despite this new discourse, the ongoing debate continues to disproportionately focus on how China is helping transform Africa, but pays less attention to how experiences on the continent are, in turn, also changing Chinese actors. This article highlights a series of unexpected developments which are forcing Chinese practitioners to leave their comfort zones and move into uncharted lands. While Chinese government officials still piously align their rhetoric to this cardinal principle of post-1949 diplomacy, it is increasingly clear that Beijing is de facto gradually abandoning its commitment to staying out of domestic politics of African states—in effect, the PRC is slowly but surely giving up its controversial policy of non-interference. This is not so much the product of a carefully considered foreign policy shift as it is a logical response to both acute security crises on the continent in recent years and China’s re-emergence as a global power with ever greater interests, ever further afield.

This combination of structural factors and ad hoc solutions thus appears not as a smooth, elegant transition but as a stop-and-go process, one that is slowly but unmistakably redirecting the course of the Chinese behemoth. One Chinese Ambassador acknowledged this and captured the uncertainties that come for Beijing with wading into uncharted lands: “Of course we are increasingly involved in the politics of African countries, we are being pulled in, we have no choice. But do the Africans really want our input? I don’t know, it is not clear.”4


Africas Reemergence in Geopolitics

After the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s, during which Africa’s share of global trade fell beneath 1 percent, the continent has staged a comeback. The drive by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to address “the scar on the conscience of the world”5through development aid and debt cancellation was reinforced by a new generation of African leaders. Pan-Africanists such as Kofi Annan and Thabo Mbeki pushed Africa up the global political agenda and took the lead in creating the African Union to provide “African Solutions to African Problems,” reclaiming African agency in addressing the intertwined crises of underdevelopment, bad governance, and violent conflict. This trend was boosted by a tectonic shift in the global political economy. The lightening growth of emerging economies and rising commodity prices, coupled with improved macroeconomic management across much of Africa, has meant that the continent since independence has never been so attractive to foreign investors and domestic entrepreneurs.6

Beijing’s role has been pivotal. On one hand, it has imported unprecedented amounts of oil, copper, cobalt, manganese, and other minerals from Angola, Congo, Nigeria, and South Africa to sustain its economic miracle. On the other, Chinese exports to Africa have exceeded US$60 billion since 2011, demonstrating the underestimated, and soaring, purchasing power present in African markets.7 If Africa once again becomes associated with lucrative opportunities, China deserves a substantial amount of the credit.

China’s injection of adrenaline into commodity markets on the back of worries about supply crunches in a world running run out of resources has led some to predict a new “Scramble for Africa,”8 reminiscent of the late 19th-century grab of African land and resources through the use of violent local proxies. Cassandras foresee increased geopolitical tensions among the United States, European countries, and the PRC, particularly over energy and minerals; some have even suggested that Africa will be a theater of 21st-century resource wars in “A Race for What’s Left.”9

This forms part of a wider discourse which analyzes Beijing’s rise through the “power transition”-paradigm, associated with pessimistic forecasts about a quasi-unavoidable clash between the established (U.S.) hegemon and the rising (Chinese) power, starting with indirect confrontation in peripheral areas of the globe, like the African continent.10 The prediction is that as Chinese interests deepen and widen, the PRC will vehemently defend crucial supply routes and markets, and seek to build alliances with like-minded states, while the West will try to contain a rising China11—a process of militarization and polarization as an inevitable outcome of the structural characteristics of today’s international order.12

Diametrically opposed to this viewpoint are those who argue that a clash of interests or civilizations on African soil is improbable. For some, this is the result of China’s accommodation by the liberal world order and Beijing’s lack of revisionist ambitions.13Geopolitical crises are, in this reading, crises of authority and governance, but not of inimical values or worldviews, and thus are solvable through the accommodation of shifting interests.14 Others make the case for Chinese exceptionalism: China has never been an overseas empire; has never established military bases outside its borders; and is, historically and contemporarily, fundamentally uninterested in influencing the politics and values of other states.15 In other words, China’s cardinal principle of non-intervention in internal affairs will persist.

This article disagrees with those who are pessimistic about the geostrategic implications of China’s growing presence on the African continent and the military challenge it would present to historically dominant Western players. But it also does not concur with the argument that Chinese actors can float above Africa’s messy politics and solely concentrate on economic success. Both approaches overlook that China’s behavior will not just be shaped by the structural conditions in which it operates (whether converging toward liberal order or competing ruthlessly in an anarchical world over ever fewer resources) or by its history and culture (a claim which suggests an unchanging China will act as an exogenous variable in African politics), but by its particular experiences in and visions of Africa. China’s actual track record in dealing with insecurity, bad governance, and unpredictability in a range of African states suggests that Africa might change some Chinese actors as much as African actors have been changed by interacting with China.

The geopolitical picture that so far emerges is one of surprisingly little confrontation between U.S., European, and Chinese interests, and the absence of a military dimension to undeniable economic competition. For all the claims of zero-sum rivalry over oil and other resources in Africa,16 “Great Power” envoys are more likely to seek to develop joint strategies and consult each other than they are to fund opposing parties in civil wars or destabilize regimes closely allied with rivaling powers in supposed battleground states like Angola, Congo, or Ethiopia. All of these were the theater of bloody contestation with the Soviet Union through proxy wars, but 2013 Western and Chinese dignitaries are both entertaining privileged ties with the same African elites. Diplomats consider the opposition irrelevant and pay attention almost exclusively to building relations with whoever is in power, a reversal of pre-1989 policies that African leaders have not failed to exploit.

For example, it is possible for the Ethiopian government to work closely with Chinese investors on hyper-expensive, geostrategic projects like building dams and railroads,17 but to simultaneously host CIA facilities and expand trade with the EU and the United States. It is in African regimes’ interests to keep both Beijing and Washington close, never allowing one of them to completely dominate. This is a strategic dance that the United States and China perform pragmatically without letting ideologies of “democratization” or “socialism” get in the way. The lens of military client states of one power or another makes little sense today when even historical U.S. allies like Kenya trade more with China than with the United States. Similarly, China’s entry into hydrocarbon producers traditionally oriented vis-à-vis the West like Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, and Nigeria has not generated geopolitical shockwaves, just like Angola’s reconnection with the IMF in 2009–2010 did not trigger a heavy-handed response of its petro-clients in China. Present-day realities do not preclude the possibility of future military confrontation, of course, but so far Africa displays preciously little evidence of a new Cold War, or even a Central Asia-style “Great Game.”


The Militarization of the African Continent

While resource wars between established and rising powers may not be emerging in Africa, the growing militarization and securitization of international relations in Africa appears undeniable.18 This general trend is rooted in Western concerns over contagious instability, increasingly shared by China, rather than a consequence of geopolitical rivalry. The PRC is not merely a passive spectator in these dynamics, but an increasingly active participant that is beginning to part ways with its non-interference policy, opting for growing political and military involvement in Africa as its interests have deepened and its perceptions of the continent have changed following two decades of intensifying interactions with African actors.

There is a general perception in the international community that instability could emanate from a widening range of sources including transnational terrorism, “climate wars,” refugee flows, or piracy on the continent. In response to these risks, the international community, often with Chinese support on the UN Security Council, has sought to provide different types of military answers to complex, deeply rooted issues. First is an upsurge in multibillion-dollar UN peacekeeping operations which, after the debacle of the 1990s in Rwanda and elsewhere, have expanded again. From Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire to Darfur and South Sudan, tens of thousands of blue helmets are deployed. Thousands of troops from the African Union have also been sent to conflict zones, including Somalia and Burundi. The Security Council is exhibiting a growing tendency of giving missions—like the “Intervention Brigade” for Congo approved in March 2013, the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (active since 2011 on the Sudan–South Sudan border), and the MINUSMA operation in Mali authorized in April 201319—greater authority to use force, equipping them with more robust mandates to counter “spoilers” determined to foment conflict and endanger civilians in Africa’s zones of instability.

Secondly, in recent years Western forces—which seldom form part of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa—have undertaken four major combat operations on the African continent, a flurry of military activity unseen in previous decades. While a French force-de-frappe tilted the balance in both Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 and Mali in 2013, EU warships have been fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, European soldiers are attempting to arrest ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic,20 and NATO aircraft and special forces played a key role in enforcing the 2011 no-fly zone over Libya and ousting Muammar Qaddafi. Finally, UNSC members have scaled up bilateral military cooperation with African states, most illustriously with the creation of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), operational since 2008. Military bases, detention facilities, and launch-pads for drone strikes in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya have been expanded in the struggle against al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations; U.S. troops have been hunting the Northern Ugandan leaders of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army since 2011.21

UN resolutions legitimize much of this militarization of the African continent, but Western powers are unquestionably the main drivers— financially, politically, and militarily. Some have interpreted this as a pre-emptive strategy against China, attempting not just to address acute security threats, but defending long-term economic interests.22 However, what is remarkable is the extent to which Beijing has not just acquiesced in these maneuvers—for instance, the PRC did not use its UNSC veto—but has increasingly come to support the Western agenda of securitizing Africa, instead of opposing it as it did for decades. Thus, of all permanent UNSC members, China’s troop contributions to UN missions is the greatest, sending up to 2,000 military personnel collectively to Liberia, Darfur, and South Sudan, and now hundreds of soldiers to Mali.23 This is a remarkable reversal from the situation 15 years ago when Beijing did not even field 100 blue helmets.24

The PRC is an important military partner through training, arms supplies, and technical assistance to regional heavyweights such as Algeria, Angola, and Nigeria.25 Since 2008, the Chinese navy has joined risky European anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden; China has also supported a hardline international stance to combat Somalia’s al-Shabab rebels and foreign jihadists, sharing Western worries about spillover effects of instability to the wider region. To help evacuate more than 35,000 Chinese nationals from the conflict theater of Libya in 2011, several Chinese warships crossed into the Mediterranean for the first time in the modern era, coordinating with NATO partners like Italy, Britain, and France. Furthermore, the PRC green-lighted French intervention in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, despite these operations decisively shifting the domestic political balance in favor of one of the belligerents.

Perhaps most revealing have been the politics of Beijing’s position on the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi.26 The PRC did not, as some expected it to, veto Anglo–French airpower enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya. While Chinese intellectuals deplored the “betrayal” of UNSC resolution 1973, which ended up paving the way for regime change in Tripoli, Beijing’s criticism of NATO’s liberal interpretation of the resolution seems mainly to have served domestic goals of appeasing anti-imperialist circles in the Chinese Communist Party, and was muted both in private and in subsequent Security Council debates. As noted by one of the British PM’s top diplomatic advisors, “when compared to Russia, India or South Africa, China has been remarkably quiet regarding Libya.”27 Bilateral relations with Qaddafi were never warm, and the Colonel was one of the continent’s only leaders to shun China’s flagship diplomatic jamboree in 2006 when the Forum for China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) brought 47 African heads of state and premiers to Beijing. Qaddafi visited China for the last time in 1982, and his dispatch of his deputy foreign minister to FOCAC was considered a loss of face by Chinese diplomats.28

Even if PRC–Libya business relations pragmatically carried on post 2006, few tears were shed over the 2011 anti-Qaddafi rebellion. Many Security Council ambassadors understood that Libya was not a priority for the PRC, with the latter supporting the referral of regime leaders to the International Criminal Court, and leaving Russia as the sole voice to mount serious opposition to Western pro-intervention arguments. China stressed that “there must be no attempt at regime change or involvement in civil war by any party under the guise of protecting civilians…We are opposed to any attempt to willfully interpret the resolutions or to take actions that exceed those mandated by the resolutions” in May 2011.29 But this defense of the PRC’s traditional position on intervention, sometimes invoked to argue that the West “tricked” China into supporting resolution 1973 with false promises, must be taken with a realpolitik pinch of salt. South Africa’s National Security Advisor, Welile Nhlapo, rightly called it “beyond belief that some permanent members of the Security Council would not understand what the implications would be for Qaddafi of having “to take all necessary measures” in the text.”30

Beijing grasped fully well that regime change was a likely outcome—and one preferable for Chinese economic interests rather than a protracted civil war— and decided not to use the veto. Thus, Beijing attempted to balance its historical attachment to non-interference with its realist reading of the Libyan situation. Few developments could be more revealing about Chinese pragmatism than the fact that within 24 hours of Qaddafi’s gruesome death in October 2011, Chinese state media began describing the Libyan leader as a “madman,” urging Tripoli’s new rulers to turn a page and establish relations with Beijing, dropping rhetorical jibes about NATO imperialism.31

Officially, the Communist Party still maintains its opposition to external intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Chinese government spokesmen regularly criticize Western interventionism and liberal-democratic conditionalities vis-à-vis African countries. Yet, China’s track record suggests that its definitions of “intervention” and “stability” can stretch much further than deemed imaginable only ten years ago. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the high point of U.S. unipolar hubris, following on from that other “illegal” war in Kosovo–Serbia (which included the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), no Chinese policymaker would have considered that Beijing would give the green light for so much Western-led or Western-funded military action in the developing world. Nor would they have considered it plausible that by 2011 the Chinese navy would defend China’s own interests in such a direct way, alongside Western operations in waters where historically it has had no presence.


The Paradigmatic Case of Sudan

For one prominent pundit, China’s increasingly assertive role in African conflicts is not a question of political intervention but of “involvement without interference.”32 Scholars and Chinese diplomats have tried to provide ad hoc explanations to account for Beijing’s decisions, arguing that every case is different and that the principle of non-interference still stands.33 Yet, how many exceptions does it take before establishing an identifiable pattern? The point is not to suggest that Chinese understandings of peace and security are completely disconnected from traditional principles of sovereignty and anti-imperialism, upon which Chinese diplomacy has been based for decades, nor that “responsible China” has been largely socialized into international society.34 My claim is that China’s increasingly intense encounters with Africa have not just influenced the continent; African experiences have also altered Beijing’s own understanding of its international relations and notions of stability and intervention. Hence, China is not headed toward a Cold War-style proxy war on the African continent with the West, but provides de facto support for Western stabilization agendas in Africa.

One particularly formative set of experiences occurred in the last twenty years in Sudan. While China’s military and economic partnership with the al-Ingaz regime, in power for 25 years now, has been the subject of much criticism by Western NGOs and activists (cf. the Beijing “Genocide Olympics”), the relationship with Sudan has not been a straightforward love affair. After the 1989 Salvation Revolution, Sino–Sudanese ties were scaled up when a coalition of Islamists and generals grabbed power and subsequently sought new partners to break Sudan’s history of exploitative dependency on Western allies. The development of the oil industry and construction of pipelines to take Sudan’s black gold to international markets by the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation in the 1990s was a remarkable technical feat. Carried out amidst horrific counter-insurgency operations by the Sudanese government against anti-government rebels, it has iconic status in Beijing and threw a lifeline to the al-Ingaz regime. Similarly, the 2009 construction of the multibillion dollar Merowe Dam and booming arms sales to Khartoum were (ultimately successful) high-risk ventures for key Chinese political and economic actors—which they undertook in spite of their lack of experience on African soil and virulent external critiques.35 Sudan offered many Chinese engineers and diplomats an all-important initial taste of the continent, shaping more generalized perceptions of Africa and boosting their self-confidence in future actions, in Sudan and elsewhere.

These Sudanese experiences, however, also included quite a few disillusionments. If Sudan became a site for experimentation with business models and technical wizardry, it also revealed itself as a place where China climbed an incredibly steep political learning curve. The PRC was taken aback by a virulent advocacy campaign from 2004 onwards accusing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of genocide in Darfur and China of providing the hardware to enable it. Together with Beijing’s extensive dealings with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (who has visited China almost 15 times since coming to power in 1979–1980), this put an unprecedented spotlight on diplomats who suddenly found themselves, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, compelled to publicly defend their actions.

Beijing was also taken by surprise when the logic of economic interdependence between Sudan and South Sudan did not prevent the two old belligerents—Khartoum’s al-Ingaz regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in Juba—from fighting conflicts by proxy and a direct war since the South’s secession to become an independent state in July 2011. Beijing assumed that its dominant position in the Sudanese and Southern Sudanese petro-economy, linked through the umbilical cord of Northern pipelines connecting Southern oil to global markets,36 would guarantee an orderly separation without needing to become involved in Sudan’s messy politics. This calculation, rooted in China’s old position of non-interference and buttressed by its beliefs in profit-driven pragmatism, backfired badly when South Sudan unilaterally stopped oil production in January 2012. This resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to Chinese companies. A week after the shutdown, Southern-backed insurgents took 29 Chinese citizens hostage close to South Kordofan’s oil-producing zones. This was a reminder of the 2007 fiasco in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region when perceived Chinese support for the government led to the murder of 70 people, including 9 Sinopec workers, by rebels.37 All these developments brutally exposed China’s vulnerability and left embassy staff scrambling to answer irate authorities in Beijing, who found themselves time and again reacting to events, rather than proactively shaping them.

If it was in Sudan that the limits of China’s non-interference principle were exposed, it was also in Sudan that the PRC has, in practice though not rhetorically, reversed its policy of opposition against intervention in domestic affairs.38 For example, after the People’s Republic was accused of turning a blind eye to the behavior of its genocidal allies in Khartoum, Chinese envoys—appointed to deal with the political fall-out following Hu Jintao’s 2007 visit to Sudan, an unprecedented move for Beijing—pressured the al-Ingaz regime to first accept AU peacekeepers into Western Sudan and then persuaded the Sudanese government to accept the “re-hatting” of the African mission into a joint UN–AU operation, becoming the world’s biggest peacekeeping force.39 While Chinese oil and arms companies maintained their links with the al-Ingaz regime, Beijing’s UN ambassador also refused to veto the referral of the Darfur conflict to the ICC, horrifying the Sudanese government as this later resulted in the Court’s controversial March 2009 arrest warrant against al-Bashir. China’s initial trust of Khartoum and its account of the violence in Darfur ended up putting the PRC in an awkward position internationally; as one Chinese senior diplomat explained to me: “When I got to the region, I thought the West had invented the Janjaweed [pro-government militias] as an excuse to intervene…But they were real and they killed people! I realized we had not been told the truth by our friends. So shameful for us.”40

Similarly, the damaging fallout of South Sudan’s secession in 2011 forced Beijing to lean heavily on the SPLA/M in Juba, with Chinese envoys making it clear to President Salva Kiir that no big loans would be forthcoming until oil would flow again, via Khartoum, to international markets.41 Beijing, which initially refused to join the AU–U.S.–Ethiopia mediation to settle post-secession issues, became instrumental in late 2012 in bringing the Sudanese belligerents back to the negotiating table. China also proposed different wealth-sharing formulas, ultimately allowing oil production and exports to resume in Spring 2013; when a civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, Chinese diplomats took unprecedented steps in publicly pressuring belligerents Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, to sign a ceasefire agreement. The PRC’s Special Envoy for African Affairs, Zhong Jianhua, even went so far as to call the conflict a game-changer, highlighting the involvement of Chinese officials in monitoring ceasefire arrangements and maintaining political pressure on all parties concerned: China should be engaging more in peace and security solutions for any conflict there…This is a challenge for China. This is something new for us…It is a new chapter for Chinese foreign affairs.”42

The experiences of Chinese actors in Sudan have been influential in shaping wider imaginations of Africa as a continent of great opportunity, but also one of deepened associations with instability and savagery which threaten Beijing’s interests and should be contained. While diplomatic discourse regarding South– South cooperation continues to be extremely courteous, the degree to which Chinese emissaries and businessmen remain rather ignorant about African societies in which they operate is baffling. Crises in Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia highlight the PRC’s vulnerability and feed into stereotypes of Africa as a lawless frontier, repeated in anecdotes (told by Chinese citizens returning from a diplomatic stint or a business trip to Nigeria or Congo) about heroically navigating barbarian violence, bureaucratic incompetence, and widespread graft.

In this context, suspending sovereignty and reestablishing a modicum of order and/or less dysfunctional politics through international intervention is actually quite welcome for Beijing.43 It should therefore not come as a surprise that senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have quietly started exploring how they could play a bigger role in peacekeeping, including extensively discussing the possibility of engaging in more risky (combat) operations (cf. their participation in the UN mission in Mali) and perhaps even setting up military bases.44 They are putting out feelers to African militaries to deepen cooperation, as well as devoting diplomatic energy to developing closer links with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. It is the perception of Africa as a site where opportunity and instability are inextricably linked that underpins the hard-nosed convergence of interests with Western actors, with whom China shares grave worries about failing states and out-of-control violence and corruption.


Conclusion: Whos Changing Whom?

The PRC’s foreign policy has, since the early 1970s, been resoundingly successful. After obtaining a permanent seat on the Security Council, its “Go Out” policy has fuelled a growth miracle that has created tens of millions of jobs and enabled the Communist Party to maintain domestic stability. After the isolation of the 1960s and the near self-destruction inflicted during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing’s mercantilist approach to international relations has been critical in maintaining the Party’s legitimacy to rule and returning China to great power status.45 Africa, as a commodity provider and an export market, has played a vital role in that trajectory.

The cardinal principle of non-interference has served Beijing well, not least vis-à-vis African countries as a clear point of differentiation with the liberal-democratic prescriptions of Western states. However, this article has suggested that the old model of Chinese foreign policy is losing its usefulness: Beijing’s interests have changed. While, as a discursive tool, the language of sovereignty remains helpful, China’s deepening material interests in Africa—and the messy, flexible tactics required to defend them— are forcing it to in practice abandon the principle of non-interference. As the PRC penetrates deeper into the continent, the price it pays for safeguarding the supply chains and markets it dominates is parting with its traditional stance on intervention.

To state that China seeks to defend its interests in international relations is tautological. What is important to understand is how both the material realities and the immaterial perceptions of international society—and China’s place in it—have altered. National interests do not magically “emerge” from power dynamics, but are shaped by values and (mis)perceptions; they are socially and historically constructed. Discussions of Beijing’s foreign policy, and especially of the principle of non-intervention, often rightly highlight the importance of China’s turbulent history of the last two centuries, and in particular the humiliations inflicted by an imperialist West and Japan between 1839 and 1945. This traumatic period continues to inform Chinese skepticism vis-à-vis normative rhetoric deployed by Western actors in legitimizing yet another suspension of sovereignty in a developing country.

But China’s past also informs foreign policy in other ways, such as an absolute abhorrence of political chaos (the product of fragmenting political authority) and a sense that the Middle Kingdom has for centuries been central to world order and must return to its rightful place in international society.46 Western pressures on the PRC to “do more” and help to maintain global security as part of being recognized as a legitimate great power are thus combining not only with the Communist Party leaders’ obsession with maintaining growth and China’s struggle to regain unique international status,47 but also with China’s own experiences of Africa as a zone of instability where global actors cannot afford to let state failure fester and violent political games derail international trade. For years, the PRC has played up its self-identity as an aggrieved, third-world state to deepen relations with developing countries, but its African entanglements are highlighting that, increasingly, such posturing limits its options more than protects its interests.

As Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai told Henry Kissinger, one needs to look at China’s actions rather than its words in order to understand it.48 If, as I have suggested, Beijing is indeed tacitly abandoning the principle of non-interference, important conclusions emerge. The PRC’s shifting thinking and actions regarding security in Africa expose the myth of Chinese exceptionalism in international relations. They underline how China’s rise is forcing it to change and, rather than triggering a Cold War in African states, to cooperate with Western countries in addressing identified threats to the stability of a continental order which benefits Beijing in important ways. It also shows how the “sacred” notion of non-intervention, which initially emerged out of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, has become a tactical tool rather than a deeply held value.

At the same time, tacitly parting with non-interference does not imply that China is converging with Western visions of international order.49 The bottom line remains that, in the Communist Party’s eyes, liberal democracy threatens authoritarian regimes and that its export destabilizes international relations. Beijing’s embrace of what one prominent advisor to the PLA calls “creative involvement”50in internal affairs does not amount to adopting missionary humanitarian language, in which concepts like the “responsibility to protect” are often couched, but rather a raison d’état-inspired shift. The PRC is neither assimilating to Western liberal values, nor directly attacking the post-1945 international order;51 it does not offer a comprehensive alternative that does everything the liberal world order supposedly did, but rather, in conjunction with other emerging powers, is working sometimes within it, sometimes around it, to further its own interests.52

The emerging picture on the continent of China’s altered orientation as it rises globally is therefore a confusing one: on one hand, the PRC is not a revisionist player in Africa. Chinese support is furthering Western and African short-term stabilization agendas, and proving progressively more important to their successful implementation. China still lacks knowledge, knowhow, and confidence in dealing with African politics, and will remain dependent on partnerships with others to preserve stability for the foreseeable future, even if its interests on the continent have made it indispensable to the new security agenda.

Simultaneously however, Beijing continues to have a fundamentally different view of what constitutes order in the long term, and what international actors should and should not do to prevent state failure and conflict on the continent.53 The latter difference may not produce a new Cold War, but it does mean that “Africa’s illiberal state-builders”54 and their China-inspired trajectories are considered far better guarantees—and examples to be promoted—for a secure environment than the export of Western-style liberal democracy, which the PRC blames for fanning the flames of instability in post-1990 Africa and the Middle East. North American and European voices have long castigated China in the hope that a shift in the PRC’s non-interference principle would boost the “End of History” agenda of universalizing Western-style democracy and capitalist markets. It thus remains to be seen whether Beijing’s new interventionist policy furthers the cause of liberal peace in Africa or actually undermines it in the long run.



1. “The New Colonialists,” The Economist, March 13, 2008,

2. Zhaoyu Huang, Jinfu Zhao, “China’s Relations with Africa: Building a Harmonious World,” Contemporary International Relations19, no. 1 (2009), pp.65—78.

3. Chris Alden, Daniel Large, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira (eds.), China Returns to Africa (London: Hurst & Co, 2008); Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

4. Interview in March 2014, identity withheld at the interviewee’s request

5. “Full text: Tony Blair’s speech (part one),” The Guardian, October 2, 2001,

6. World Economic Forum, The Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 (Geneva: WEF/World Bank/African Development Bank, 2011).

7. “Full Text: China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation (2013),” Xinhuanet, August 29, 2013,

8. Padraig Carmody, The New Scramble for Africa (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

9. Michael Klare, The Race for What’s Left. The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Picador, 2012).

10. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W.Norton, 2001); William A. Callahan, “How to Understand China: The Dangers and Opportunities of Being a Rising Power,” Review of International Studies 31 (2007), pp.701-714.

11. Liu Mingfu, Zhongguo meng: hou meiguo shidai de daguo siwei yu zhanlue dingwei [China Dream. Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the post-American Era] (Beijing: Zhongguo Youyi Chiban Gongsi, 2010.)

12. Jonathan Kirshner, `The Tragedy of Offensive Realism: Classical Realism and the Rise of China’, European Journal of International Relations 18, no. 1 (2010), pp.1-23.

13. Mingjiang Li, Rising from Within: China’s Search for a Multilateral World and Its Implications for Sino-US Relations,” Global Governance 17, no. 3 (2011), pp.331-352.

14. John G. Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan. The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011).

15. Zhang Weiwei, The China WaveRise of a Civilizational State (Hackensack: World Century Publishing, 2012); Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is China a Status Quo Power?” International Security 27, no. 4, (2003), pp.5-56.”

16. John Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil (Mariner Books, 2008); Pierre Abramovici, “Activisme militaire de Washington en Afrique” [in French], Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2004.

17. “Looking East,” The Economist, October 21, 2010,

18. Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars (New York: Zed Books, 2001).

19. UN Security Council, “Security Council Meeting 6952 on the situation in Mali,” S/PV.6952, April 25, 2013,

20. “First EU peacekeeping troops arrive in CAR,” France24, April 10, 2014,

21. Helene Cooper, “More U.S. Troops to Aid Uganda Search for Kony,” New York Times, March 23, 2014,

22. Michael Klare, Daniel Volman, “America, China and the Scramble for Africa’s Oil,” Review of African Political Economy 33, no. 108 (2006), pp.297-309.

23. “Contributors to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” United Nations, January 31, 2014,

24. Saferworld, China’s Growing Role in Peace and Security (Beijing: Saferworld, 2011).

25. David Shinn, “Military and Security Relations: China, Africa, and the Rest of the World,” Robert Rotberg (ed.), China into Africa(New York: Brookings Institute, 2008), pp.155-196.

26. These paragraphs are based on extensive interviews in 2013 in Beijing and Shanghai with key figures in Chinese diplomacy who asked to remain anonymous.

27. Interview, London, February 2013.

28. Mu Chunshan, “China’s Prickly Gaddafi Ties,” The Diplomat, March 7, 2011,

29. UN Security Council, “Security Council Meeting 6531 on the Protection of civilians in armed conflict,” S/PV.6531, May 10, 2011, 206531.pdf.

30. Interview in Pretoria, South Africa, February 2013.

31. Christopher Bodeen, “Gadhafi goes from `strongman’ to `madman’ in China,” Associated Press, October 21, 2011.

32. Li Anshan, “China and Africa: Policy and Challenges,” China Security 3, no. 3 (2007), p.77.

33. For instance Andrew Garwood-Gowers, “China and the “Responsibility to Protect”: The Implications of the Libyan Intervention,”Asian Journal of International Law 2, no. 2 (2012), pp.375-393.

34. Liu Tiewa, “Marching for a More Open, Confident and Responsible Great Power: Explaining China’s Involvement in UN Peacekeeping Operations,” Journal of International Peacekeeping 13 (2009), pp.101-130.

35. Harry Verhoeven, “ `Dams are Development’: China, the Al-Ingaz Regime and the Political Economy of the Sudanese Nile,” Dan Large, Luke Patey, (eds.) Sudan Looks East (Oxford: James Currey, 2011), pp.120-138.

36. Luke A. Patey, “Crude Days Ahead? Oil in Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” African Affairs 109, no. 437 (2010), pp.617-636.

37. Jeffrey Gettleman, “Ethiopian Rebels Kill 70 at Chinese-Run Oil Field,” The New York Times, April 25, 2007,

38. Dan Large, “China and Southern Sudan,” in Dan Large, Luke A. Patey, (eds.) Sudan Looks East (Oxford: James Currey, 2011), pp.157-175.

39. Saferworld, China’s Growing Role in African Peace and Security, pp.27-36.

40. Interview in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2013.

41. Interviews in Beijing, May 2013, and Addis Ababa, January 2014.

42. Michael Martina, “South Sudan marks new foreign policy chapter for China: official,” Reuters, February 11, 2014,

43. Shogo Suzuki, “Paternal Authority, Civilized State: China’s evolving attitude towards international trusteeships,” in James Mayall, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, The New Protectorates (London: Hurst, 2011), pp.83-104.

44. Interviews with Ministry of Defence officials, May 2013.

45. David Zweig, Internationalizing China. Domestic Interests and Global Linkages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

46. Yan Xuetong, “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes,” Journal of Contemporary China 10, no. 26 (2001), p.34.

47. Yong Deng, China’s Struggle for Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

48. Henry Kissinger, On China (London: Penguin, 2011), p.262.

49. For a great overview of scholarly debates in China on international order, norms, and the question of interventionism, see Liu Tiewa, Zhang Haiban, “Debates in China about the Responsibility to Protect as a Developing International Norm: a General Assessment,” Conflict, Security and Development 14, no. 4 (2014, forthcoming).

50. Wang Yizhou, Chuang zao xing jie ru: Zhongguo wai jiao xin qu xiang [Creative Involvement: A New Direction in China’s Diplomacy], (Beijing, 2011).

51. Shaun Breslin, “China and the global order: signalling threat or friendship?” International Affairs 89, no. 3 (2013), pp.615—634.

52. Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, Steven Weber, “The Mythical World Order,” The National Interest, (March/April 2013), pp.56-67.

53. Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus (New York: Perseus, 2010).

54. Will Jones, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Harry Verhoeven, “Africa’s Illiberal State-Builders,” Department of International Development/Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper, University of Oxford, 2013.

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