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[All Politics is Global] African Union Celebrates 60th Year as China Continues to Make Inroads

The African Union, as a collective, needs to tread cautiously while dealing with China and its clasping economic, political, and military/security influence.

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A security officer rides a bicycle past African Union (AU) member states national flags during the 60th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU) at the African Union Commission (AUC) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 25, 2023. (Adapted from ©REUTERS by Tiksa Negeri)

The African Union (AU) is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year in 2023. But the blood-stained history of unending conflict, civil wars, humanitarian crises, human rights violations, gender-based violence, and genocide is a crying tale still echoing across the continent. Africa, with its vast natural and human resources, continues to yearn to achieve the long-cherished goal of free movement of people, goods, and services.

The AU is a continental body consisting of 55 member-states. It was officially launched in 2002 as a successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Marking six decades of the AU from May 22-28, Africa began a week-long celebration. 

However, only 46 out of the 55 member-states have ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) launched in 2018 to promote the free movement of goods and services within the continent. In this sense, Borderless Africa — a campaign for the ratification of the protocol that ensures free movement for the development and economic emancipation of Africa — continues to be very far from fruition.

Growing Chinese Inroads in Africa

Since 2020 onwards, cases such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, and Somalia have witnessed a resurgence of coup d'états, violent internal conflicts, and resource-related instabilities. The African Union celebrated its 60th anniversary on May 25. But the very idea of China — with its brute policing and public surveillance system and apparatus managing to have made deep inroads inside the entire African continent — is a story in itself.

According to a May 2023 publication titled "China's Policing Models Make Inroads in Africa" brought out by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, China has expanded police engagements across Africa. This could potentially have far-reaching consequences for its overall security governance. Application of China's model of absolute Party control could undermine military and police professionalism, and the very idea of security for all Africans. 

The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) security model is summed up by the Party term, "stability maintenance" (weiwen, 维稳). It holds that "regime security is the basis" for national security and survival. As many as 40 African countries have some kind of agreement with China's public security agencies. Besides, China has also negotiated extradition treaties with 13 African countries — up from zero in 2018.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, President of the Comoros and Chairperson of African Union (AU) Azali Assoumani, and African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat attend the 60th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU) at the African Union Commission (AUC) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 25, 2023. (© REUTERS by Tiksa Negeri)

Chinese Military Training Programs

Notably, African governments access Chinese police and law enforcement training through China's Ministry of Public Security's (MPS) International Law Enforcement Training Program — a collection of 21 police academies. This is roughly equivalent to the number of Chinese military academies open to African students, indicating the scale of police training that China conducts. 

Moreover, Beijing has also constructed police training schools, built police stations, and supplied police equipment in many parts of Africa. China's "no questions asked" policy allows clients to purchase equipment without worrying about human rights-related export controls and end-user monitoring.

In the years between 2003-2017, African countries secured $3.56 billion USD in Chinese loans for public security. This includes surveillance systems, national security networks, and other security wares like anti-rioting gear. To many analysts, this figure would certainly fall far short, given that the bulk of this equipment remains excluded from officially declared budget figures.

China's lending to Africa for defense and/or domestic security purposes fits the tenor of its Second Africa Policy. This is an official 2015 White Paper that outlined Beijing's foreign policy strategy in Africa. The paper stated, "[China] will support the efforts by African countries … to build capabilities in safeguarding peace and stability in Africa … to help African countries enhance their capacity-building in national defense and peacekeeping … "

A delegate stands next to posters displaying the portraits of heads of state who were founders of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)/African Union, during the 60th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU) at the African Union Commission (AUC) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 25, 2023. (© REUTERS by Tiksa Negeri)

Absolute Control Attractive to Elite Niche

That said, it appears that China, over the years has created a particularly receptive niche audience among a sizeable section of African politico-military elites concerned with "regime survival." They seem to be drawing heavily from, and admiring the CCP's methods of absolute control and pervasive police-state machinery (jingchaguojia jiqi, 警察国家机器) that exceeds the entire Chinese military budget.

For that matter, China's defense spending conceals far more than it reveals. Beijing's actual defense expenditure is estimated to be fourfold than the officially announced figures. Multiple public security-related expenditures, such as the People's Armed Police and Coast Guard, responsible for maintaining domestic order and upholding maritime rights, respectively, are not included in the official budgetary figures.

Training and equipping of Africa's police/security units by China has led to rising skepticism about the latter. Africa is the youngest continent in the world with nearly 60 percent of the population below 25 years of age. The African Union, as a collective, needs to tread cautiously while dealing with China, and its clasping economic, political, and military/security influence.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr
Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.