Mali gives China a reality check

By Peter Fabricius for ISS TODAY 16 October 2020

Construction workers at work in Bamako, Mali. (Photo: Rik Schuiling / TropCrop-TCS)

Instability in Mali shows that development, security and government need to work together for peace to occur. 

First published by ISS Today

China’s role in Africa’s security has been evolving, from its tentative first steps in non-combatant peace operations in 1998 to combat-ready peacekeepers in 2012 and the formalisation of defence cooperation through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

The growing number of Chinese boots on African ground is providing a reality check on some of its core beliefs about security. This includes an over-emphasis on the impact of development on security; an insistence on dealing only with fellow sovereigns and neglecting governance problems; and China’s related strict principles of non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

The catalyst for China’s growing security engagement with Africa was the 2011 Libya crisis. About 35 000 citizens and some 30 firms were caught in the crossfire of a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led bombing campaign and civil war, says Sinologist Chris Alden of the London School of Economics and the SA Institute of International Affairs.

China had to get out fast. It realised that something needed to be done so it was no longer possible to stay out of conflict,” he told a recent webinar hosted by the China Africa Research Initiative of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Since then, China’s increasing engagement on security has largely followed its growing commercial involvement in Africa, turning on its head the old colonial-era maxim of trade following the flag. Its key objective initially in beefing up security has been to protect its business people and projects in Africa. That was the focus for its first peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where it had oil interests to safeguard.

That was also its motivation for getting involved in the international anti-piracy campaigns, first in the Gulf of Aden in 2009 and then the Gulf of Guinea in 2014. The former evolved into the establishment of a permanent military base in Djibouti in 2015.

China’s security presence has also been motivated by its growing sense of responsibility as a rising global power with commensurate global responsibilities, Alden says. And so security cooperation with Africa got onto the forum’s agenda in 2012 and evolved into a comprehensive action plan at FOCAC 2018, he said.

The webinar heard that arms sales from China to Africa were also growing, as was the deployment of private security companies. And Mali is proving to be something of a laboratory for China.

Mali was the site of a remarkable turnaround in China’s approach to armed intervention on the continent,” said China experts Lina Benabdallah and Daniel Large in another presentation. “From blanket condemnation of France’s Operation Serval as neocolonial to active support for, and participation in, the [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali].”

China also deployed its first, however symbolic, contingent of combat troops to Mali thus, with South Sudan, inaugurating a new phase in China’s UN peacekeeping, they added. They said Beijing’s evolving security engagement in Mali had been a major test of the Communist Party’s belief that security is mostly a function of development and that creating jobs with infrastructure construction is the backbone of stability. China, by implication, hasn’t given much consideration to the vice versa – that security enables development.

The most glaring limitation of this philosophy was that Chinese development projects in Mali – such as schools, clinics, roads and bridges – have been destroyed by insurgents. Often, Benabdallah and Large say, so that the armed groups might replace government services with their own.

This has aggravated the Malian state’s failure to deliver public services, especially in central and northern Mali. This lack of service delivery was already causing locals to perceive non-state actors (such as armed groups or self-defence militia) as legitimate actors.

That illustrates another problem with China’s approach which the Mali experience has revealed – the insistence on dealing only with sovereign powers, and neglecting other actors in society. This approach has undercut the standing of China in the eyes of the wider population.

Benabdallah and Large also found that the Chinese peacekeepers were regarded by other players as risk-averse. This could derive from the deeply ingrained belief in the overwhelming primacy of development for security. The criticism was noted among peacekeepers and the Chinese population back home, which has reacted negatively to the few casualties China has suffered in Mali and South Sudan.

Another reality check on China’s notions about the development-security nexus was the discovery that good governance is essential to the success of development projects. The scholars cited several examples of Chinese development projects such as schools and universities, which simply didn’t operate because of lack of political will and competence by Malian officials.

Engaging with the crisis in Mali necessitates a holistic engagement with all three interrelated elements: development, security, and governance,” the two authors concluded. China enjoys a big advantage over other foreign partners in Mali through its substantial investment in development projects intended to build security and stability.

These include a university and vocational training centre, football stadiums, a bridge crossing the Niger River, the Bamako expressway, conference centre, national museum renovation, the $2.7 billion rehabilitation of the Bamako-Dakar railway line and the building of the $8 billion railway line between Mali and the port of Conakry in Guinea.

But without the political will from the government to make these projects count, it is difficult for the development-security nexus to move beyond theoretical appeal,” the authors say.

These lessons apply beyond Mali and perhaps even beyond China. The belief that development is not only a necessary but also almost a sufficient condition for security is quite widespread. In many conflicts the dearth of development is indeed the critical factor. But just as often, if not more so, it is also the lack of governance and the state’s inability to exercise a monopoly of violence over its entire territory.

As Benabdallah and Large discovered in Mali, the three forces of development, security and government relate to each other in a dynamic and alternating flow of cause and effect. DM

Peter Fabricius, is an ISS Consultant.



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  • Much credibility has been assigned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, world-wide, and over much time for review and refinement. His first researched then designated need for human life is Safety. Safety may legitimately be conflated with Security. The author’s (Peter Fabricius) writing above gives hints of a sense of Chinese societal concern, about which many might be surprised to read. This welcome sensibility would have been better founded and thus more readily assimilated by all surely (in Mali) if the Chinese had operated with at least a modicum of understanding of the importance of (the West’s) Maslow Research. Mali would have been better served. Security was, and is, hugely needed.
    Also in the melting pot of the Sahel scenarios is the issue of the Chinese approach to Islam, back home, so to speak.
    What is China’s true impression of Islam, and how does it relate to Islam in the Sahara regions?


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