Authors: Lina Benabdallah and Daniel Large
Affiliated organization: Johns Hopkins SAIS
Type of publication: Working paper
Date of publication: August 2020
The idea that development produces security and peace has been prominent in China’s engagement with Africa, including Beijing’s engagement with security and “hotspot” conflicts. One notable “hotspot” is Mali, which plunged into a multifaceted political crisis in 2012 involving a separatist rebellion, jihadist insurgency, and military coup in the capital Bamako.
Beginning in January 2013, a French military mission, Operation Serval, intervened to end jihadist control over northern Mali after which the international community “marshalled enormous resources in an effort to restore a modicum of peace and security”.
In 2013, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), consisting of over 12,000 uniformed personnel, was mandated to broker and implement a peace agreement, protect civilians, and stabilize population centers. A peace accord between Tuareg rebels and the central government was eventually signed in 2015. A French regional anti-terrorism force, Operation Barkhane, succeeded Operation Serval and focused much of its attention on Mali.
Finally, international partners have launched numerous initiatives to assist the government in building peace and reconstructing the state, including the security sector. Despite substantial efforts and long-standing intervention, the security situation in Mali “has been deteriorating continuously since 2013” culminating in anti-IBK (Ibrahim Boubacar Keita) protests for several weeks in the summer of 2020, followed by a mutiny turned into a military coup on August 18, 2020.
Although the overriding association between China and Mali today concerns security, relations between Beijing and Bamako are rooted in a deeper history of political ties and development assistance.
China and Mali’s relationship dates back to the post-colonial period, with diplomatic relations established on October 25, 1960. Efforts to rejuvenate relations through economic links were made in the 1990s, especially after the visit to Bamako by China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in January 2005.
Li Zhaoxing visited Bamako again in 2006, meeting Mali’s President Amadou Toumany Toure and Prime Minister Ousmane Issouti Maga and signing an agreement on technological and economic cooperation. During Li’s visit, ZTE (a Chinese telecommunications equipment company) signed an agreement to install Mali’s first wireless network for Sotelma, the state-owned telecoms operator, and Li attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of a China-Mali sugar cane joint venture, Sukala S.A.
In February 2009, President Hu Jintao visited Bamako in a state visit heralded as opening a “new chapter in bilateral relations.” Arguably, however, in reality this new chapter did not begin until 2013 when, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China agreed to support MINUSMA.
Since then, China’s relations with Mali, and its role in the country and in the Sahel region, have been dominated by security concerns but also accompanied by the framing of economic development as “the key to solving all problems.” Of note among the more recent development projects are the Chinese government-funded Center of Vocation Training constructed in Senou, the University Campus of Kabala, and the agriculture demonstration center in Baguineda. The question then is how successful are these development projects in pushing for security and stability in Mali.
Although the overriding association between China and Mali today concerns security, relations between Beijing and Bamako are rooted in a deeper history of political ties and development assistance. China and Mali’s relationship dates back to the post-colonial period, with diplomatic relations established on October 25, 1960. Efforts to rejuvenate relations through economic links were made in the 1990s, especially after the visit to Bamako by China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in January 2005
Mali matters for understanding China’s evolving engagement with peace and security in Africa for several reasons.
First, Mali was the site of a remarkable turnaround in China’s approach to armed intervention in the continent, from blanket condemnation of France’s Operation Serval as neocolonial to active support for, and participation in, the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA.
Second, China deployed its first, however symbolic, contingent of “combat troops” to Mali thus, with South Sudan, inaugurating a new phase in the evolution of China’s UN peacekeeping.
Third, Mali is one part of a complex regional conflict in the Sahel, where conditions are undergoing a fast and fluid deterioration. Although Mali has also been somewhat overshadowed by interest in China’s more high-profile engagement with South Sudan, and its naval base in Djibouti, the Sahel region represents an increasingly challenging and strategic engagement for Beijing. Finally, a set of more practical questions about policy, including China’s approach to engaging in conflict zones and how other states and external powers respond, also demonstrate the importance of this case.
China, development, and security in Africa
The Chinese government stresses that economic development is central to overcoming the sources of armed conflict and achieving peace, understood as more than the absence of fighting. Interest in the relationship between development and security began to be fed into the Forum on ChinaAfrica Cooperation (FOCAC) process with the official adoption of a peace and security component in 2012. This has also been codified into Chinese variants of “developmental peace,” which essentially provide Chinese characteristics to longstanding debates about economic processes, conflict, and peace.
Such apparent faith in the efficacy of economics in addressing security challenges predated the launch and rolling out of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but the BRI elevated the type of grand statements concerning development as the route to peace that had typically been directed toward Africa – notably in China’s high-profile engagements like Darfur and South Sudan – to a global scope.
President Xi Jinping told the 2015 FOCAC that, “development holds the key to solving all problems.” China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, went further in telling the September 2019 United Nations General Assembly that, “development is the master key to solving all problems.
Development should be placed at the center of the global macro policy framework, with continued focus on priority areas such as poverty reduction, infrastructure, education, and public health.” Furthermore, he promised that Beijing would, “actively explore and apply a Chinese approach to addressing hotspot issues, and play a constructive role in upholding international peace and security.”
If China’s rhetoric concerning Mali and other “hotspot” cases in Africa continues to be taken literally, what appears to be left based in actual fact is merely a residual faith that lacks any robust, empirically substantiated foundation. Here, China would not stand out as unique; other external powers and international organizations have experimented with, and sought to apply, variations on the same broad “peace through development” theme (indeed, this slogan has been used by insurgent rebel movements in Africa to articulate and legitimize their armed struggle).
Indeed, such thinking marks one facet of current international approaches to Mali, predicated on stabilization linked to counterterrorism objectives. China is facing familiar, intractable constraints and there is little reason to think it, as a relative newcomer, can make any decisive difference in such a complex conflict in Mali and the Sahel.
The context of the security situation in Mali is markedly different from most other contexts of Chinese foreign policy making in Africa, where the extrapolation of the CCP’s domestic development-for-security approach has yielded positive results.
The development-security nexus in China’s domestic politics is premised on the policy prescription that creating economic growth (via direct and indirect employment-creation from basic infrastructure construction) is the backbone of stability (and peace). When applied to Mali, China’s contributions to development projects are framed (by Chinese diplomats) as contributions to peace and security. In practice, this contribution faces many challenges when applied in context.
CHINA’S ENGAGEMENT IN MALI SINCE 2012
Relations between China and Mali have developed into a broad and diverse spectrum of areas, spanning socio-cultural relations, political and economic links, and an expanding security relationship.
Development assistance and Socio-cultural relations
Three main development projects stand out among China’s many projects in Mali. These are the Centre de Formation Professionelle in Senou, the Centre Universitaire de Kabala, and the Centre Pilote Agricole in Baguineda. These three projects have in common a huge potential for job creation, skills transfers, and improving living-conditions in Mali. They also have in common being located in or near the capital city. In Bamako, not too far from the capital’s airport, the brand new Vocational Training Center sponsored by China Aid was completed in 2018, ready to equip young Malians with technical skills that prepare them for the job market.
The Center’s entrance displays a huge banner of Mali’s now former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita shaking hands with Xi Jinping. The center has been ready and waiting to be used for almost two years. Despite its core mission to provide youth with skills that can lead to finding suitable jobs and improve socioeconomic living conditions, it has proven to be a rather inconsequential investment. Examining the underlying reasons behind this missed opportunity gives us an important look into the drawbacks of China’s development-backed conflict resolution and peace building in Mali.
People-to-people exchange initiatives and scholarship programs are a trademark of Chinese foreign policy in Africa and an important part of China-Mali bilateral relations. Under FOCAC funding, Sino-Mali cooperation has diversified and expanded to include more of these cultural and education exchanges. China organizes about 80 seminars for Malians annually and sponsors 300 professionalization trainings. Indeed, as of September 2017, 2,536 Malians had participated in FOCAC-organized professionalization trainings in China.
Another important component of these exchanges is the launch of a series of vocational training workshops for artisanal skills, which were announced by Xi Jinping at the 2018 FOCAC. These workshops, called Luban Workshops, aim, “to provide vocational training for young Africans.”Mali’s first Luban workshop was launched on December 20, 2019 in the form of an Atelier de Medecine Traditionelle Chinoise located at the Chinese-funded campus of Kabala University.
Founded on deep historical ties, China has maintained strong political relations with Mali. China’s role in Mali, and deepening security role in the African continent, is a world away from historical ties but is still officially framed using time-honored foreign policy principles. While visiting Mali in January 1964, Premier Zhou Enlai listened to President Keita praise China for its low cost technical assistance, Chinese technicians’ readiness to adapt themselves to Malian life, and “the speed and competence” of Chinese projects undertaken, “without the slightest intention of interfering in our internal affairs.”
Relatedly, the most recent coup that led to ousting IBK in August 2020, showed once again that China’s political relations with Mali are far more restrained and differing to the norms of non-intervention and regional institutions than other major partners of Mali. Beijing’s reaction to the news of the coup was limited to supporting regional organizations in resolving the political crisis.
Nonetheless, Mali’s long history of supporting Beijing is part of ritual encounters between high level leaders. As China’s ambassador in Bamako put it, Mali, “has, like a good brother, unswervingly supported China on its core interests.” Mali has participated in the FOCAC process, in December 2015 high level meetings were held between Xi Jinping and former President Keita in Johannesburg, and again before the 2018 FOCAC in Beijing. The government of Mali has supported Xi Jinping’s foreign policy positioning China as a major power, expressing support for Xi’s “community of common destiny” and the BRI.
Economic relations between China and Mali are not insignificant but are not at the scale of China’s relations with other resource-rich African states. A landlocked country, Mali’s economy is dominated by raw commodity exports (gold and cotton account for 86 percent of exports, with only 3 percent of cotton being processed). In 2017, China was the second top country from which Mali imported goods, after Senegal, but Mali’s top five export partners were South Africa, Switzerland, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, and Cote d’Ivoire.
The broad profile of China-Mali trade relations has remained broadly constant across time – Mali imports manufactured products and exports raw commodities – but the context has changed significantly, including the emergence of dynamic transnational trade in commodities such as green tea and other finished goods. The top importers of Chinese goods have been local Malian traders. There is also a flourishing business in finished goods like bikes, phones, and tea. Additionally, rooted in the informal sector, there is a more illicit strand of economic relations featuring trade in donkey skin and poached animals.
Agricultural cooperation has been one constant aspect of Sino-Malian economic relations. This featured a notable project, three years before the 2012 crisis. In 2009, the China Light Industrial Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technical Co-operation and the Malian government allocated an additional 20,000 hectares of land to a new sugar scheme, N-Sukala, which combined pivot-fed plots east of the Canal du Sahel and furrow irrigated fields on the west side of the canal. The government of Mali regarded irrigated agriculture as the, “best means to modernize the agricultural sector, ensure greater food security, and produce key commodities, such as sugar and oil seeds.”
Work on N-Sukala began in 2010, with then President Amadou Toumany Toure wanting to show progress before the elections scheduled for April 2012. Total investment was estimated at 80 billion CFA francs (US$ 136 million at 2018 rates), to be funded by a 20-year Chinese loan to the Malian government. The project, “was presented as a positive factor leader to greater development for people living in the project zone, with the prospect of 10,000 seasonal and 600 full time jobs. Social benefits were also promised, with provision of roads, schools, and health centers all envisaged.”
In 2017, China was the second top country from which Mali imported goods, after Senegal, but Mali’s top five export partners were South Africa, Switzerland, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, and Cote d’Ivoire
Mining is a major economic sector in Mali. The third-largest producer of gold in Africa, gold accounted for 60 percent of Mali’s exports in 2016 and industrial gold production increased to a record 65.1 tons in 2019. Gold is also an important part of the informal economy and trade export networks, with Switzerland, China, and particularly Dubai acting as major importers.
Trade networks connect southern Mali to Guinea and the Kidal region in northern Mali to Algeria. China’s role in goldmining has been relatively small to date, instead goldmining is dominated by companies from Australia, Canada, and the UK. China remains a bigger importer and consumer than an investor in Malian resources. However, this does not mean there are no Chinese mining activities in Mali, simply that Chinese companies operate on a smaller scale and as relative late comers.
More recently, amidst efforts by the government of Mali to attract Chinese investment, there have been signs of an increased Chinese presence in Mali’s mining industry. These efforts are part of Mali’s attempts to diversify beyond gold. In addition to the fledgling hydrocarbon sector, whose progress has stalled due to conflict, other minerals are also being targeted for extraction. In September 2019, Australian Mali Lithium announced that it was expanding its partnership with Minmetals Corporation, the Chinese SOE headquartered in Beijing. The partnership is through Minmetals’ subsidiary, the Changsha Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
Reportedly, Changsha was also going to test samples from the Goulamina project, reportedly the worlds, “largest uncommitted hard rock lithium mineral reserve.” The mineral sector appears likely to see further interest from Chinese corporations as well as other foreign parties.
Security and Military Relations
China delivered 5 million Euros worth of logistics equipment to the Malian Army between 2012 and 2013. The equipment, containing several 4×4 pickups and trucks, was meant as logistical support for the Malian Army to transport soldiers across the country. The size and type of military aid was carefully chosen so that the CCP could still symbolically show support for the Malian people in their struggle without the burden that comes along with overt interference in Mali’s domestic issues. At this time, around 2012, Mali was receiving most of its lethal military aid from Russia and Bulgaria.
In addition to military aid, China’s UN peacekeeping is another prominent part of its security engagement in Mali. Although this contribution remained relatively modest in practice, the presence of peacekeeping troops had symbolic significance. In China there were vocal critics of France’s military intervention in Mali, but Beijing’s position evolved over time. The evolution reflected, amongst other things, concern over the impact of the Arab Spring and the threat of terrorism. Chinese analysts were concerned that political turmoil in West Asia and North Africa would persist and become a long-term trend. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali was widely regarded as a typical example of this “interconnectedness” and domino effect. Some argued that although the Libyan conflict in 2011 did not create a chain reaction in Africa, the grave spillover effects of Western armed intervention nonetheless damaged African security.
The outbreak of the Malian crisis is thought to have been significantly influenced by the spillover effects of Libya’s civil war and NATO’s armed attack in pursuit of regime change. According to some Chinese studies, the destabilizing spillover effects spread across the Sahel-Sahara region. The Chinese government assessed the threat of terrorism to be the major concern, heightened by the creation of a political power vacuum in Mali that could be exploited by groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Mali was included in the list of countries belonging to an, “arc of instability caused by terrorism” (kongbu dongdang hu) along with Libya, Somalia, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Egypt.
Among China’s peacekeepers deployed to Mali, only 170 are soldiers. The remaining peacekeepers are engineers, medical staff, and other peacekeepers who were tasked with completing the construction of the hospital in the city of Gao where the Chinese contingent is stationed. That the majority of Chinese peacekeepers in Mali are engineers and medical staff indicates how China’s approach prioritizes development work. Chinese peacekeeping engineers are often involved in projects that result in road construction work, building security checkpoints, providing drinking water to the local populations, paving roads, as well as building fences around public schools in Gao.
Evaluating china’s development-security nexus in Mali
There is no question about the necessity of development to secure and sustain peace and stability in Mali. Whether this is in the north, the center, or other regions in Mali, the escalation of the crisis since 2012 has had a crippling impact on the economy. Investments dwindled as construction projects halted, foreign aid disbursements were disrupted during the military junta-led coup in March 2012, and revenues from the tourism sector (whether through artisanal crafts or service industry) plummeted. The relationship between conflict and development, especially as seen from the development-security nexus is multidirectional in that just as much as conflict impacts the economy, lack of economic growth also plays a role in prolonging conflict. Indeed, diminishing economic revenues and higher rates of unemployment tend to open up opportunities for luring the young unemployed or by blackmailing them.
Unemployment or underemployment also exacerbates conflict by opening up a path for illicit trade activities such as drugs and narcotics trafficking which are widely recognized for their role in financing Jihadist activities. In fact, one of the many grievances held against the Malian government is its inability to provide youth employment and its inadequate economic reforms that often fail to open opportunities for socioeconomic betterment.
Challenges to china’s security involvement in Mali
Standing between China’s development-for-security approach in Mali and the materialization of peace and stability in the country are several big and small challenges. We divide these into three broad categories: challenges to China’s approach to governance, challenges that come from lack of contact and trust-building with locals and from limited knowledge of the region, and challenges to Chinese peacekeeping. Yet before we get to these three structural challenges, there is a direct hindering impact on China’s construction work and infrastructure development in Mali: the conflict targets basic infrastructure.
Among China’s peacekeepers deployed to Mali, only 170 are soldiers. The remaining peacekeepers are engineers, medical staff, and other peacekeepers who were tasked with completing the construction of the hospital in the city of Gao where the Chinese contingent is stationed. That the majority of Chinese peacekeepers in Mali are engineers and medical staff indicates how China’s approach prioritizes development work
At first glance, a basic yet serious challenge undermining China’s development-for-security approach in Mali and Mali’s broad development goals is the fact that development projects (roads, bridges, schools, health clinics, and so on) are frequently targeted by armed groups in times of conflict. Armed groups benefit from isolating populations from nearby communities (and government forces) by destroying vital infrastructure projects (such as bridges and schools). This in turn opens up an opportunity for armed groups to start a new social contract with local citizens by replacing the state as the providers of basic public goods.
Armed groups then have the opportunity to act instead of the state by performing basic tasks such as providing perimeter protection and other public services such as basic justice, security, and relief. Destroying vital infrastructure is sometimes also a tactic that armed groups have been documented to use in order to isolate villages from receiving rescue aid before attacking them. Whatever the intentions, infrastructure construction is highly targeted during conflict and is highly critical during postconflict reconstruction.
Much of the concerted effort to respond to the crisis in Mali has taken the shape of military operations. The Malian government set up a response plan that was supposed to integrate a military operation to take back territories captured by Katiba Macina, and then provide development aid, return of state officials and state capabilities, and economic development. However, experts have said that in reality, “efforts have focused primarily on the military campaign.” Besides the Malian army, the focus on the military can be seen in French operations in Mali, such as Operation Berkane, in G5 Sahel joint force involvement, and through MINUSMA (although the latter’s focus has centered more on civilian protection and return of the state).
The governance aspect remains a weak element in these operations, whether led by the Malian army or by foreign interventions. A recent survey from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on Central Mali finds the, “poor provision and limited effectiveness of the institutions responsible for delivering public services are reported to have serious effects on people’s livelihoods.” The state’s weak physical presence in Central and Northern Mali causes governance gaps in areas such as the judiciary, public service provision, and overall rule of law and this is causing local people to perceive nonstate actors (such as armed groups or self-defense militia) as legitimate actors. Indeed, “populations in central Mali grant a high presumption of effectiveness to non-state security actors, whereas international and sub-regional actors are considered to be the least effective.”
Exercising governance by the state is crucially important for the development-security nexus to be successful and effective. If the state fails to, “demonstrate effective authority and exercise the monopoly of force in these regions, chronic insecurity reigns and undermines prospects for peace and socioeconomic development.”
Taken from a Chinese perspective, precautions about peacekeeping operations might not necessarily be viewed as risk averse but rather as being careful about balancing domestic and international concerns. On the one hand, dealing with domestic criticism in the form of Chinese netizens’ dissatisfaction and anger reacting to news of casualties among Chinese troops deployed in peacekeeping missions requires caution and restraint. On the other hand, meeting the international community’s expectations that come with Beijing’s aspirations for global leadership and participation in global peace and security necessitates engagement and risk-taking.
Domestically, peacekeeping is important for the CCP’s objectives of building a sentiment of national pride around the image of strong and masculine PLA soldiers. Indeed, studies find that, generally, Chinese public opinion is largely supportive of China’s PKO contributions. Yet, Chinese citizens have registered their anger and dissatisfaction with PKOs when they lead to Chinese casualties. This is illustrated in Chinese netizens reactions to events similar to the clashes that erupted in the summer of 2016 in South Sudan leading to the death of two Chinese peacekeepers. Chinese peacekeepers in Mali also suffered an attack that claimed the life a Chinese military engineer and injured four more.
For this reason, exercising caution and paying attention to chain of command is very important to Chinese PKO contingents. Therefore, put in this context of domestic public opinion perceptions, the CHN L2 hospital staff could be viewed as merely following the protocol put in place in order to ensure as few surprising situations that might cause anger and criticism from the Chinese public.
Pressures by the international community on China to play a bigger role in global peace and security provisions have materialized in Beijing’s evolving role within UNPKOs. Indeed, over the last decade, China has increased its PKO financing, personnel deployments, and trainings for a standby force. Yet, Beijing is not limiting its PKO contributions to increasing troop size or budget contributions only. Chinese officials fhave also expressed interest in taking on more leadership roles and higher-ranking posts within UNPKOs. In this vein, the current Sector East Commander (mainly responsible for the region of Gao) is a Chinese officer. This could mean that the time gap the Chinese contingent has incurred by going through an extensive chain of command could be improved significantly with a Chinese officer as sector commander.
Yet, it is also important to note that regardless of Beijing’s intentions about peacekeeping and balancing domestic and international gains, we have observed that several non-Chinese MINUSMA staff viewed the Chinese contingent as not combat-ready. Similarly, the average Malian national does not actually know there are Chinese peacekeepers in Mali, much less a combat contingent.
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