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Glimpses of Future China-Africa Engagement

TEH ENG KOON / AFP

For a while, I’ve been wondering about Chinese peacekeeping in Africa. Specifically, I was wondering where it went as a topic of discussion. A few years ago, every second China-Africa seminar seemed to focus on peacekeeping. Then attention moved to debt, and I assumed that Beijing was cooling on peacekeeping, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.

Welp, it turns out I was very wrong. Peacekeeping is back, and it’s even coming with its own movie tie-in (more on that in today’s newsletter).

In fact, one of the most eye-catching aspects of the renewed prominence of peacekeeping is its tie-ins. By this, I don’t mean The Blue Defensive Line, eye-catching as that is, but rather how it’s coinciding with the roll-out of a number of trade and investment initiatives. 

China’s engagement with Africa includes many different players with disparate agendas, and one should be wary of reading coincidences as coordination. However, I think many African policymakers will take note of the overlap of renewed peacekeeping energy with the announcement of a new Africa-focused Free Trade Zone in Hunan, and an apparent wider move to position Hunan as Africa Central. Changsha has already hosted a China-Africa trade expo and is moving forward on cocoa trading and boosting RMB internationalization on the continent. 

It’s stating the obvious that no equivalent to these overlapping developments exists among Africa’s Western partners. Mid-sized American cities aren’t clamouring to get into the Africa game, and I’m guessing few Western governments are burning to increase their support of UN missions on the continent. 

Whatever one thinks of these trends, they are stretching the limits of what ‘African engagement’ looks like – less through any one specific initiative and more through the overlap between sectors. In this context, the old debate about whether Chinese peacekeeping serves African or Chinese interests becomes moot. Increasingly the point seems to be the creation of shared interests, where the line between African and Chinese priorities falls away.  

Whether this is desirable is one question (one that very much depends on one’s own point of view.) Whether it’s even possible is another. But these overlapping developments are increasingly bringing it into the realm of the imaginable, and that’s already a massive shift.

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