Wadeisor Rukato 

This post originally appeared on from Africa to China, an awesome site put together by four African ladies studying in China. According to their mission, from Africa to China is “on a quest to revamp the landscape of Africa by dissolving existing stereotypes and using our knowledge and experiences to add value and contribute to the bigger strategic thinking plan for the growth of Africa.”  Be sure to check them out!

Since the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, Chinese investment in African countries has rapidly accelerated. China’s growing interest in the region has been accompanied by an increasing need for it to protect these interests. This has, in certain cases, been at the expense of its foreign policy orientation.

The PRC has generally framed its engagement with Africa and the rest of the international community according to the principles of ‘non-intervention’ and ‘non-interference’ in the affairs of other countries. The cases of Chinese decision-making on Libya and Djibouti illustrate China’s inconsistent application of its principle of non-interference in African and are treated as evidence of what can be regarded as China’s changing foreign policy in the region.

The principle of non-interference became a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy  when it featured as one of China’s “five principles of peaceful co-existence” in the Sino-Indian trade agreement that was signed in 1954. Ten years later, when Premier Zhou Enlai embarked on a tour of African countries in 1964, he proposed “the same five principles of peaceful coexistence to Africa, together with the eight principles governing China’s aid to developing countries, as the basic political and economic norms for developing Sino-African relations.”

From a systemic level of analysis, non-intervention is a core tenant of the international system and contemporary international law. It largely underpins the principle of sovereignty. It also “lies at the heart of both customary international law and the United Nations (UN) Charter”. Additionally, it remains an essential component of the maintenance of international peace and security, and a defence of weak states against the strong.

This being the case, the interpretation of “non-intervention” differs widely amongst actors in the international system. Absolutist and contingent perceptions of when the principle holds lie at opposite ends on the spectrum of views on non-intervention. According to Adoaora Osondu (2013), ‘absolutists’ are those whose interpretation of the principle of non-intervention holds that “the issue of human rights should not change the principle that upholds the sovereignty of a State”. He goes on to explain that “most developing countries, especially Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) still maintain that non-interference and non-intervention are absolute”.

China’s deviation from the status quo

Libya- 2011

The Libyan case is an interesting one because it demonstrates how, depending on what is at stake or the extent to which its interests are threatened, China will deviate from its principle of non-interference. At the time of the 2011 Libyan Uprising, there were just over 35,000 Chinese nationals working in Libya. China also had numerous projects and energy and telecommunications investments in Libya. To put it simply, “Beijing had outstanding contracts worth about $20 billion in Libya before the war”.

As the political situation in Libya unravelled, China initially acted in line with its principle of non-intervention by refusing to support the rebel army in Libya when it appealed to the international community for support. This was unsurprising. In the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) China has on many occasions acted similarly, by distancing itself from direct involvement in cases where UNSC member states pass resolutions that call for UN intervention in other countries. “By not voting or casting an abstention, China has allowed several interventions to go ahead without reversing its commitment to non-intervention”.

On Libya, China first deviated from its expected foreign policy orientation when On 26 February 2011, it voted in favour of a UN resolution that proposed the imposition of sanctions against Muammar Gaddafi. The UN Security Council unilaterally voted “in favour of UN sanctions against Colonel Qaddafi”. As the conflict in Libya escalated Beijing then mounted a huge military operation to evacuate is nearly 35,000 Chinese citizens from Libya on the 3rd of March 2011. Most Chinese citizens were evacuated by sea, air and overland through a combination of chartered merchant vessels, chartered aircraft, and military aircraft.

A few weeks later on the 17th of March 2011, China reassumed its usual position when it cast an abstention on Resolution 1973, a Security Council resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. Resolution 1973 formed the basis for international military intervention in the Libyan Civil War. Li Baodong, who served as the Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations from 2010 to 2013, explained China’s abstention as follows: “China has serious concerns over some elements of the resolution and noted the need to respect sovereignty, independence, unification and territorial integrity of Libya”.

As the conflict in Libya continued post-international-intervention, China again changed its behaviour when it started to engage bilaterally with the rebel forces in Libya; the same rebel forces it had initially declined to assist.  This was first through a “meeting with the rebels in Qatar, and then by sending a Chinese diplomat to meet the rebels in Benghazi”. With billions of dollars’ worth of investments potentially under threat in Libya, China clearly had a lot to lose in the conflict. We see that, when its economic and national interests were sufficiently threatened during different stages of the Libyan civil war, China repeatedly reneged on its non-interventionism.


Over the last few years, Beijing has been gradually ratcheting up (albeit discretely) its military engagement in Africa. In 2014, China sent its first infantry battalion consisting of 700 troops to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. In 2015, Beijing committed 100 million US Dollars to the African Union (AU) to accelerate and support the already ongoing formation and mobilisation of the African Standby Force.

At the start of 2016 a small country located in the horn of Africa became the new centre of attention for Chinese military engagement in Africa. On the 21st of January 2016, “the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry announced an agreement with Djibouti to host its first-ever military base beyond the South China Sea”. According to Beijing, the military base in Djibouti will play an important role in “peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, logistical support and personnel recuperation of the Chinese armed forces conducting missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast”.

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Obock, a the port city in Djibouti, is the location of China’s first overseas military base

Long term permanent access to the military base in Obock is important to China for a number of reasons. In addition to the various practical advantages the base will afford the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the base is important for signaling China’s arrival on the global stage.  Furthermore, the Djibouti base is important for China’s ability to monitor its interests in Africa, both in terms of the more than one million people large Chinese diaspora in Africa, and China’s material and political interests.

As China’s foreign policy engagement in Africa changes over time, Beijing is tasked with having to strike the balance between “protecting its interests without succumbing to imperial temptations”. According to Mandip Singh (2016), as China’s penetration in Africa deepens and as its status as a global power grows, it will increasingly safeguard its interests using military power. This is to the extent that China’s traditional treatment of non-interference in its foreign policy toward Africa will likely become more complex and nuanced. China’s military and security involvement on the African continent will certainly cause important changes that directly challenge the principle of non-interventionism.

Even so, we can expect that the principles of non-interference and non-intervention will consistently be upheld in China’s rhetoric on its foreign policy in Africa.

wadeisorWadeisor Rukato is a Zimbabwean who has lived in South Africa for the past 19 years. She graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor’s Degree (Honours) in International Relations and wrote her Honour’s thesis on the effects of migration on development in Zimbabwe. Wadeisor aspires to work at the intersection of consulting and journalism on Africa in the future.

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