THE CHAOS IN THE SAHEL DAMAGES CHINA

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by Giorgio Cuscito

Originally published on Limes n. 8/2023, Africa contro Occidente

The coup d’état in Niger hampers the People’s Republic of China’s plans to consolidate its activities in the north-western part of Africa. Nevertheless, the regional tensions generated by the crisis in Niamey and the overall instability in the Sahel region reflect the mistrust of African countries towards Europe. They could therefore encourage China to seek further support on the Mediterranean’s southern shores in favour of the international projects it is promoting with the aim of undermining the US-led world order. The BRICS platform (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) offers more than one clue. After the August summit held in Johannesburg, BRICS accepted Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Egypt and Argentina as new members. These countries have very different strategic interests that in some cases are too much at odds with each other to allow them to form a concrete anti-Western bloc. Yet, the event confirmed that the Chinese (and Russian) attempt to weaken confidence in US leadership is far from indifferent to those who inhabit the oxymoronic Global South.

The People’s Republic has considered Africa a geopolitical target since its foundation. It has been investing in local infrastructure for at least thirty years, in order to obtain diplomatic support and preferential prices for the purchase of natural resources, starting with oil, lithium, cobalt, copper and agricultural products. This is all based on a mutual promise not to interfere in internal affairs, especially when it comes to human rights. The Belt and Road Initiative (the New Silk Road), which since 2013 has been the catalyst and umbrella of Beijing’s countless political and economic initiatives, has its roots in China’s approach to Africa.

Over a period of ten years, it is precisely in Africa that the New Silk Road has also revealed its latent war dimension. In 2017, the first naval base of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was opened in Djibouti. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese private security companies and arms companies has increased in Africa, and new forums on cybernetic and military cooperation have been launched. Dozens of high-ranking African politicians participate in courses organised by Chinese military institutes.

Beijing’s long-term plan is to develop an infrastructure corridor between Djibouti and Africa’s west coast via the Sahel region. This would create the conditions for the activation of a second PLA outpost in countries facing the Atlantic. Equatorial Guinea was one of the countries being considered – it joined the New Silk Road in 2019. Two years later, the US warned Malabo not to accept the construction of a permanent People’s Republic military base. Sierra Leone is also considered a potential location, especially after Freetown approved the construction of a fishing port along Black Johnson beach in 2021. Opposition from residents, fearful of job losses and potential environmental damage, was to no avail.

The PLA is aiming at the Atlantic with three objectives: to monitor NATO operations between American and European coasts more accurately; to respond to the growing presence of America’s western allies in the Indo-Pacific; and to reduce the need to sail the Mediterranean. In fact, although Beijing has invested in all the African countries washed by the Mediterranean (including Libya, where it does not now operate), in its eyes the intensifying naval activities of the United States, Russia and Turkey make the basin less hospitable than it once was.

The sequence of coups that have taken place since 2020 in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, Chad and Gabon is, however, an unknown for Chinese activities south of the Sahara. The fact that Beijing merely encouraged Niamey and other regional actors to politically resolve the ongoing crisis implies that a direct Chinese intervention is to be ruled out, especially a military one, if not through UN peacekeeping missions. Incidentally, 80% of PLA soldiers participating in peace-keeping missions operate in Africa. What’s more, the future of the Sahel region matters most to the Europeans. They see Niger as a theatre in which to curb the expansion of Jihadist activities around Lake Chad and stem the flow of migrants from the heart of Africa to Europe.

Nevertheless, the People’s Republic could engage diplomatically in Sahelian affairs to expand cooperation with African governments in the field of security, demonstrate that it can contribute more than America to the stability of the international order, and thus give substance to ‘globalisation with Chinese characteristics’. That said, Africa is not President Xi Jinping’s first concern these months.

2. Over time, Chinese-Niger understanding has experienced ups and downs. Niamey ended relations with Taiwan and opened them with the People’s Republic in 1974. It resumed diplomatic dialogue with Taipei in 1992 only to abandon it and recognise Beijing’s sovereignty four years later. In practice, what has always conditioned the African country’s strategy has been the search for the most convenient investments, regardless of which China was the source.

Today, the People’s Republic ranks as the second investor in Niger, after France, with 40 Chinese companies and a total of one thousand workers working there. In 2020, the money disbursed amounted to $2.68 billion, with projects mainly led by companies such as PetroChina (a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, CNPC) and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). Last May, the company Sinopec also decided to invest in Niger, signing a memorandum of understanding. Representatives in Niamey called the event ‘historic’, epitomising the excellence of Mohamed Bazoum’s presidency (he was deposed in July).

CNPC controls 60% of the Soraz refinery (situated on the border with Nigeria), which produces 20 000 barrels of oil per day. However, the most significant made-in-China project is the construction of a 2 000-kilometre pipeline to Benin. The infrastructure – 60% complete and again entrusted to CNPC – will allow the transport of oil from the Agadem fields to the Zinder refinery (operated by China) and then to Cotonou to be sold by sea. Its commissioning would allow Niamey to multiply crude oil exports and boost the local economy. Given the project’s significance, the People’s Republic has been paying special attention to relations with Benin for some time. During the 2021 China-Africa Forum, the two governments concluded agreements to counter cyber threats and to build more than 400 kilometres of optical fibre between ten urban areas. Last January, then Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (replaced in July by his predecessor Wang Yi) visited the country and announced the partial cancellation of Benin’s accumulated debt toward the People’s Republic.

Nigerien uranium is also coveted by Beijing, although local reserves are still mainly destined for France and Canada. CNNC began operations at the Azelik deposit in 2007, later benefiting from investments by the Export-Import Bank of China. The project was frozen in 2015, formally due to unfavourable market conditions. Last June, the China National Uranium Corporation (CNUC) was negotiating the acquisition of Société des Mines d’Azelik (a Nigerien state-owned enterprise) to resume mining in the North. In July, the Chinese envoy for West Africa Jiang Feng announced that an industrial complex would be built in Niamey in the fields of agribusiness, real estate, and mining. The agreement was reached after a meeting with Bazoum. In early August, Benin claimed that the coup had led to delays in the development of the Agadem pipeline, but not to the halting of works. A few weeks later, China Gezhouaba suspended the construction of the Kandadji hydroelectric dam – a move probably dictated by the interruption of US and EU aid to Niger and other sanctions applied by West African countries, and a sign that the coup undermines the future of Chinese projects in that country.

3. What happens in Niamey will hardly condition the relationship between China and Nigeria. Energy and demographic resources (over 200 million inhabitants), access to the Atlantic, and the four-billion-dollar debt accumulated towards the People’s Republic make Abuja the hub of Beijing’s strategy in this part of Africa. In early July, PLA ships docked in Lagos for a five-day visit. The group consisted of the destroyer Nanning, the frigate Sanya, and the supply ship Weishanhu. The operation is a crystal-clear example of Chinese efforts to patrol the Atlantic.

In Lagos, the new port of Lekki went into operation last year. The infrastructure (worth $ 1.5 billion) is being managed by a consortium made up of China Harbour Engineering, a Singaporean, and a local company. The infrastructure would become increasingly important if it is connected to railway lines to other cities in Nigeria, Chad, Mali, and Senegal. Beijing also sees Lagos as a hub for local dissemination of its technologies. Huawei aims to turn the city into a smart city by leveraging the digital surveillance activities already initiated in synergy with the Nigerian government, including the agreement to set up an electronic monitoring network along the country’s land borders and perhaps, in the future, along its sea borders. This would overlap with China’s plan to expand military activities in the Gulf of Guinea, justifying such an expansion with the need to protect offshore oil extraction by its companies, ensure regional stability, and protect its countrymen, who at times are targets of piracy. A large part of the People’s Republic’s 500 fishing boats operate in these waters, casting their nets off Africa to take advantage of the abundant fish resources and informally patrol the area on behalf of Beijing.

Collaboration with Nigeria is also relevant on a scientific level. In June, Nigerian and Ethiopian experts travelled to Xinjiang for a summit on combating desertification, a problem that unites the People’s Republic and Africa and undermines the development of Chinese interests straddling the Sahara. For Beijing, it is also an opportunity to intensify satellite operations in the continent and thus the collection of information. Moreover, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2021, Chinese arms accounted for 37.5 % of those imported by Nigeria. The China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO), the People’s Republic’s leading enterprise in the sector, is driving sales. Widening its gaze to the rest of Africa between 2018 and 2022, China was the third largest supplier of war devices after Russia and the United States, thanks to lower prices and probably American sanctions on Russian military companies. In August, NORINCO opened an office in Dakar, Senegal, in addition to those in Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa. In the future, offices may also be opened in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.

Supplies include not only light armaments, but also more advanced assets such as fighter jets and drones that require training, thus increasing Chinese military presence in partner countries. The example of Cameroon, which is rich in gold, oil, and natural gas and borders Nigeria, is worth mentioning. Yaoundé has developed a training agreement with the Chinese National Defense University, has conducted anti-piracy naval exercises in the Gulf of Guinea with the PLA, and is purchasing increasingly sophisticated war devices from the People’s Republic. The Chinese media have read NORINCO’s expansion in Senegal as proof of the national ability to reduce French and Russian influence in the African arms market.

The People’s Republic does not seem to appreciate the presence of Russia and the Wagner Group on the continent. Until recently, it even seemed not to rule out that it was men formerly working for the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, not the Coalition of Patriots for Change, who killed nine Chinese workers at a gold mine in the Central African Republic. Following this, Wagner earned a mention in Chinese newspapers last July for rescuing other workers from an imminent attack, also in the same country. It was as if the mercenary team wanted to deny the criticism it had previously suffered, prove that the coup has not affected its operations in Africa, and secure the trust of Chinese companies.

This attempt at persuasion is unlikely to succeed. As a rule, companies from the People’s Republic rely on Chinese security companies, whose presence in Africa is on the rise. However, Chinese companies have less equipment and capacity than Wagner, mainly offer consulting services to private companies (less so to governments), and sometimes do not use weapons – not only to avoid incidents, but also not to fuel the already palpable anti-Chinese sentiment of the local populations. Prigozhin’s attempted coup makes it all the more difficult for Beijing to give Chinese security companies free rein.

4. The People’s Republic will not completely stop its commercial and financial operations straddling the Sahel region. It will also leverage distrust of the West to increase political cooperation with regional actors, probably under the umbrella of the New Silk Road and the three new Global Initiatives on Security, Development and Exchange between Civilisations. These are projects that some of the continent’s governments have already signalled their intention to join at the last BRICS meeting and during the third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum held at the end of August.

Beijing could, however, scale back or block unsuccessful and riskier economic projects, including those in Niger, if there is not the return of at least a modicum of stability. The African turmoil does not allow the People’s Republic to develop a true transcontinental corridor any time soon, making the creation of a military base on the Atlantic less pressing. Such a base would be a useful lookout to the west, but would remain isolated, far from the Chinese coast and Djibouti. However, future PLA visits to oceanic ports are not ruled out. Above all, Beijing is grappling with serious domestic issues. In particular, the economic slowdown, the possible bursting of the real estate bubble (see the troubles of Country Garden and Evergrande), demographic decline, youth malaise, and the American grip in the military-technological field, tightened by the growing alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. This is a dangerous combination of obstacles that could slow down and, at worst, sabotage Xi’s global projects.

At the moment, therefore, it does not matter much to Beijing who governs in Niamey. As long as who it is manages firmly to control Niger and does not further hinder China’s activities in Africa.

(Translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)