Understanding the Changing Dynamics of China’s (non-) Interference Principles within the Frame of Its Involvement in Nigeria’s Counterinsurgency Efforts

Philip Olayoku's picture

The proposition of the Belt and Road Initiative by China in 2013 indicated a new approach of the country’s foreign diplomacy through a remap of the Old Silk Road along six major economic corridors. Since the launch of the initiative, at least a total of 126 countries, and no less than 40 countries in Africa, have signed the memorandum of understanding with China on bilateral relations. The expansion of China’s economic interests has also impacted on its policy towards international security, as it has become more involved in the internal security operations of some of its partner countries. In 2017, Sigil Mumini observed the emerging contradictions in China’s principle of noninterference in Africa, and concluded that the Chinese could no longer adhere to its principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of African countries, especially with the increase in its investments on the continent.

This new approach is exemplified China’s shuttle diplomacy engagement during the mediation of the crises between Sudan and South Sudan during the approval of Resolution 2046 by the United Nations Security Council. China also sent a special envoy to South Sudan during the crises between President Salva Kiir and the rebels loyal to the deposed vice president, Riek Machar. In his analysis of the movie ‘Wolf Warrior’, Jimmy Zhang noted that Chinese diplomats, businessmen and technocrats would increasingly become targets of militias and terrorist organisations as China’s diplomatic and economic interests expand abroad. This becomes more probable with the reduction in the activities of United States that has currently started withdrawing its troops from foreign nations. China may thus be prompted to intensify its military action abroad. Earlier in 2009, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) had issued some threats against China in an attempt to avenge the attacks on the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province by the central government. The jihadists threatened to target about 50,000 Chinese workers in Algeria, as well as Chinese projects in North Africa. In West Africa, the Boko Haram has reportedly killed Chinese doctors and construction workers during attacks in Borno and Yobe States. China has therefore been increasingly involved in combatting terrorism both within its borders and through support operations abroad.

China’s involvement in countering violent extremism abroad has been provided for in law through Article 71 of China’s Counterterrorism Law. The first deployment of Chinese combat troops abroad was to Mali in 2013, when it donated troops to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This was also the first time it extended the scope of its security operations beyond Chinese citizens.  Subsequently, China’s oil interests in South Sudan (where it deployed infantry troops in 2015), Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria have led to collaborations on securing the countries, including through the supply of arms. Nigeria specifically benefited from this in countering the militancy in the Niger Delta. China has also been performing joint military exercises along the Gulf of Guinea with military personnel from adjoining countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon and Cameroon through the People’s Liberation Army’s anti-piracy initiative. China contributed to a team of international experts from the US, UK, Russia and Norway tasked with the evacuation nuclear materials categorized as weapon grade uranium (HEU) from the Nigerian Research Reactor 1, located in Kaduna State. The HEU posed great threats to security in the country which had been witnessing terrorists’ activities as it could be accessed by them to create bombs with the capacity for large explosion. The operation to relocate the nuclear materials to China took place between October and December 2018. Earlier in March, China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Zhang Jun, reiterated his country’s commitment to supporting the African Union’s ‘Silencing the Guns by 2020’ initiative at the Security Council meeting. He, however, noted that the African Union and other regional bodies have the primary responsibility to support governments in domesticating relevant UN resolutions and counterterrorism strategies. In line with this position, China is reported to have contributed about 300million Yuan to the African Union in support of its counterterrorism initiatives across the Sahel region. 

China’s military policy has evolved over the years since its initial opposition to UN Peacekeeping missions in the 1970s. The Chinese government voted in support of and financial contributed towards peacekeeping in the 1980s. At the turn of the millennium, it began the deployment of troops and civilian police abroad to support UN operations. In 2017, it first naval base abroad was built in Djibouti. As of July 2019, China was projected as contributing about 2,521 soldiers to UN missions thereby ranking 11th in the overall standings of contributing countries. China is also the second largest funder of UN Peacekeeping budget after the United States. Ambassador Jun also assured the UN Security Council that China will continue its financial support for its UN facilitated counterterrorism program in Africa through the China-UN Peace and Development Fund. This will be complemented with other Peace and Security initiatives using the platforms provided by the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, and the China-Africa Peace and Security Cooperation Fund.

During the September 2018 Summit on the Africa-China Forum held in Beijing, China pledged N2bn within the framework of military to military relations to support Nigeria’s fight against the Boko Haram insurgents. The cooperation has continued with the Nigerian government purchasing state of the art armoured tanks and artillery vehicles (including VT-4 main battle tanks (MBT), ST-1 wheeled anti-tank, and two models of self-propelled howitzers) from the China North Industries Corporation Limited (NORINCO) in April, while China also provides trainings to the army’s operations and maintenance teams. Nigeria took delivery of the Four out of Eight ordered Wing Loong II combat drones designed by the China-based Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute in November for use by the Nigerian Airforce in countering insurgency in the Northeast and banditry in the Northwest. 

Apart from military Aid, the Chinese have also provided humanitarian support for victims of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s Northeast. In May 2017, the then Chinese Ambassador, Dr Zhou Pingjian, announced his country’s support in humanitarian aid to the tune of $5million dollars through the UN World Food Programme. This was to provide food supplies for IDPs that were returning to their communities. With the growing influence of the Chinese in the global diplomatic and political landscape, its interventions abroad remain a combination of human and material support for kinetic warfare, as well as of soft approaches in aid. These operations remain largely based on extant UN frameworks and those of other regional bodies carrying out interventions on the continent. Nonetheless, it is important that the Nigerian government on its part negotiate favorable, if symmetrical, terms of engagement that will result in a win-win situation for all parties, and erode the suspicion regarding the intention of Chinese aid within the continent.