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Chinese police awarded UN medals. UNMISS/Flickr
Chinese police awarded UN medals. UNMISS/Flickr
November 22, 2023

A Look at China’s Overseas Security Partnerships

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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China’s security footprint has grown beyond its own borders, not only through its first overseas military installation in Djibouti but through sets of security partnerships with countries. 

These partnerships include everything from military and police training, peacekeeping, and the procurement of military weaponry and equipment. In this episode, Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Paul Nantulya examine the motivations and implications of China’s broadening overseas security partnerships.

Eleanor M. Albert: Today, we’re unpacking China’s overseas security partnerships with our guests Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Paul Nantulya.

Sheena is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin, where she directs UT's Asia Policy Program. She is currently on leave as a visiting associate research professor of Indo-Pacific security at the United States Army War College. Her research focuses on security, East Asia, and authoritarian politics and foreign policy. 

Paul Nantulya is a research associate at the Africa Center, where he researches and prepares written analysis on contemporary Africa security issues. His areas of expertise include Chinese foreign policy, China-Africa relations, African partnerships with Southeast Asian countries, and East and Southern Africa.

Sheena, Paul, welcome to the show.

Paul Nantulya: Thank you, Eleanor. It's great to be on the show.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: Thanks so much for having me. Great to be here.

Eleanor M. Albert: Before we dig in, I always like to get insight into how people got to where they are. So I wondered, Sheena, if you could just give a quick tidbit about how you started your journey into studying China and its political system and how that applies to our broader conversation.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: There were two starting points, neither of which are actually directly related to China, but both of which led me there eventually. One was family history. When I was in third grade, my family adopted my younger sister from Korea. So my family learned a lot about Korean culture, participated as much as we could in the local Korean community, and I just got really interested in what her life would've been like had she not had the chance of being adopted out. Korea did send a lot of kids overseas at that point in time, but it was just a point of curiosity that gradually moved from a personal to an intellectual curiosity.

Then the second is that I went to college about two weeks after 9/11 and the office I was doing a summer internship in had someone whose sister was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. That left a pretty profound impression. I had grown up in the unipolar moment, the post-Cold War moment of American power and leadershipand
I thought admiration
around the world. And so the fact that 19 men with box cutters could turn the American sense of security and safety and its role in the world seemingly upside down, which was my perspective as a college freshman, prompted a lot of questions. I was fortunate enough to be an undergraduate at Stanford, which had some terrific on campus events and panels to help students process and think through what had happened.

About a year and a half later, the Iraq War began and there was lots of on-campus debate and very strong feelings about that. I went into college thinking I would be pre-med and left with a focus on national security and got a scholarship to go and do a master's degree in England. And over the course of that, realized that I love this enough and I loved research and writing enough to really try to be an academic. And so that's sort of the genesis of how I got there. There were lots of steps in the middle, but that's sort of the very beginning of the story.

Eleanor M. Albert:  Paul, what about youhow did you enter this space of studying China-Africa relations, and why is the security space is something that you gravitated towards?

Paul Nantulya: It's been a long journey, which I guess started when I was barely a teen. I had always had an interest in East Asian philosophy and ways of life. So I was, and still am, a martial artist. I was introduced to Chinese martial arts as a child and eventually gravitated to Korean arts. It was easy for me to see the similarities in cultural attitudes and ways of looking at the world. Because martial arts is essentially... These are expressions. These are expressions of culture, which are much more than just fighting or defending yourself.

And my father taught in Japan, and he found me a pen pal. In those days you had pen pals, and I was learning Japanese language and culture... And so I had a colleague from across the oceans that I could speak with and improve my Japanese communication, learning about Japanese culture. Both my father and mother really encouraged me because in those days, it was very popular for kids to learn German or to learn French or to learn Spanish. I went the exact opposite, and I wanted to learn an East Asian language.

When I started college, I immediately chose to continue with Japanese.  My mother enrolled me in a program that was run by the Japanese Embassy in Nairobi, an advanced program, and I continued my Japanese training.

This really provided a foundation because at that time, nobody really talked about China. But I looked at it and I was really interested in looking at the similarities… I know it would be very controversial because of the problems between China and Japan, but I saw the similarities, and I had lots of connections in China because so many of my friends went to study there. When I enrolled for my master's, I said, “I will do a deep dive into China and I've basically just continued from that point. 

I really credit my parents, but more so my mother, because she really pushed me. She made it possible for me to pursue my Japanese language and culture studies. That really provided a foundation for me to jump into China and Chinese perspective on worldview and so on.

Eleanor M. Albert: We're talking today about China's overseas security partnerships. And I think to understand these partnerships, it would be helpful to first understand how they fit into China's conception of national security. It'd be great if you, Sheena, could shed some light on how China, and this is particularly under Xi Jinping, how does it think about national security and how do these expanding security partnerships fit into that commitment about always thinking about security?

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: This is actually the topic of a book I'm working on right now, so I'll try to keep my answers brief. Xi Jinping in 2014 launched what he called the “Comprehensive National Security” concept. At the time, it actually didn't get all that much attention. We were focused on what Xi Jinping was practically doing in his first couple of years as China's preeminent leader. There was “Xi Jinping Thought” in the early couple of years that was being developed. It's become clear with the benefit of hindsight, it's the intellectual architecture for his sense of what makes China secure and, in particular, what makes the leadership of the Communist Party secure.

So national securitywhich can also be translated as state security, the words are equivalent in Chineseis really first and foremost a regime security concept. Its foundation is often described as being political security. It's the security of the authority of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, of China's socialist system, and of Xi Jinping at the core of that system.  So It's very much a leadership and a regime security, party security concept.

It's highly preventive. Xi Jinping has spent a long time pushing the party to try to be better at detecting and acting earlier on potential threats to regime security. It also sees external and internal security as highly interconnected. One of the interesting things about the concept is that it has primed the Chinese political system to interpret external events and world events through the lens of how will this affect the security and the ability to hold power of the Chinese Communist Party.

There's also been a longstanding concern in Chinese rhetoric, the idea of external and internal security being interconnected. This is not new; Xi Jinping systematized, formalized, and elevated it to the level of doctrine, which we know because in the 20th Party Congress report, national security for the first time had its own section pulled out, elevated to very authoritative levels in CCP discourse and written documents.

Sometimes people ask, "Well, is this actually new?" Yes and no. It didn't come out of nowhere; it wouldn't have gotten traction. But it has produced significant changes in Chinese behavior at home and abroad. And that's where we need to look at, okay, well, why was that? What was it that Xi Jinping did with this idea that made it different in practice?

The other part of this is that part of this internal and external security connection is this fear of foreign infiltration, foreign subversion, destabilization. If you blame a lot of your internal security issues on external problems, it's actually interesting how long it took for there to be a foreign policy component of this. But around 2017, Xi Jinping gave a speech to the Ministry of Public Security, China's police and law enforcement ministry, where he said, "You need to adopt a global vision for state security work." And the Ministry of Public Security promptly responded by going out and increasing its foreign presence and its foreign activities.

One of the points I make is that one of China's most active diplomats is Wang Xiaohong, who's the minister of public security. If you look at the schedule of foreign bilateral ministerial level engagements he keeps, it's pretty significant. There's a whole component of this around PLA [People’s Liberation Army] overseas diplomacy as well, and security partnerships there, the security component of the Belt and Road [Initiative]. All of these trends were pushing China toward more robust security partnerships overseas, and I think that's where you get the trend toward these security partnerships.

Eleanor M. Albert: I also think what's fascinating about this is one interpretation could be that if you see foreign events and things in the external sphere as being potentially very threatening to your own internal national security, then maybe you would be more isolationist. But in fact, we've actually seen the opposite and much greater engagement on the part of Xi Jinping in the international sphere.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: Two quick thoughts on that. I think first, that's the preventive part. If you truly believe that you have to tackle problems at the source, and if the source of problems lies overseas, you have to have a foreign policy component to actually do the preventive work that is embedded in this concept.

The other thing is that the framing of threats that Xi Jinping linked to the deployment of this new concept already saw the risks to China as increasing. They were increasing because China was growing more powerful, and there's this sort of Hegelian Marxist dialectic going on: where as the opportunities increase, the risks increase correspondingly. So if you already see the risks as increasing and you're supposed to be preventive, then prevention is actually the way you resolve the risks rather than increasing them because the risks are already there to begin with. There's a different risk calculus that we sometimes miss, and that's why I actually think it's important to go back and understand this conceptual framework because otherwise, yes, it could lead to retrenchment or isolation if you had a different sort of intellectual architecture around what threatens your security and what you should do about it.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to shift us to the security partnerships, which is the bulk of what we're here to talk about. I wanted to get your perspective, Paul, on what kinds of security partnerships China has developed with third parties, particularly on the African continent. And then what makes these partnerships attractive to recipient countries?

Paul Nantulya: That's an excellent question. China, I think has become more of a partner of choice, if you will, and has developed more comprehensive and multifaceted security and military relationships in Africa than it has in, for instance, Latin America or the Caribbean, or even South Asia to some extent. Africa has really been the center of gravity and continues to be the center of gravity for Chinese military and security engagements.

It is important to anchor that in history because Africa was the central point for the armed struggles against colonialism, the struggles for independence, and so on. This was shortly after the birth of the People's Republic of China. The central foreign policy focus of the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party, was supporting worldwide anti-apartheid movements. That meant that the center for Chinese foreign policy was essentially Africa.

What China did was provide military support. It provided technical advisors. It provided weaponry. It provided political commissars to train the political cadres of these movements. Outside of Korea, at that time, and Taiwan, China was focused on Africa.

China kind of fell by the wayside, so to speak, after independence had been established and the Cold War had ended China was now focusing inward, on reform and opening up. China ceased to be a major partner to African countries until the early 2000s. Then we see China coming back to Africa. But lots of lessons from the historical phase have been applied.

One of those is education. China has really ramped up and has sought to catch up with the United States, in particular, in the area of military education. Every year, China provides what you call quotas. China provides quotas to African countries to send their officers to the People's Republic to train in different military academies at different levels. That has become front and center to how China does security engagement in Africa. It has grown to such an extent that many African officers say that, "What China has to offer is of a scale that has grown so rapidly that it has outpaced the United States and Western countries." You're talking at least 1,500. I've seen a figure of 2,000 officers that participate in these programs.

Eleanor M. Albert: Are there particular African militaries that take advantage of these opportunities? Who are some of the partners that are sending their officers there?

Paul Nantulya: What we've seen is China has tended to focus on countries where there is historical affinities with the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the People's Liberation Army. These are countries that are governed by parties that led liberation struggles that were supported by the People's Republic of China. So that is essentially concentrated in Southern Africa. So those Southern African countries, we're talking Namibia, Mozambique, Angola; we're talking South Africa, we're talking Tanzania. Even Botswana, Zambia, right? These countries have very, very well-developed security engagements with China.

But the People's Liberation Army has also shown that it has a knack for developing relations with countries that did not have those kinds of historical ties and which were either pro West during the Cold War or neutral. So countries like Kenya, right? Liberia, for instance, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast. Senegal, okay? China has made a lot of headway.

If you look at Liberia, Liberia has had a quota of 35, which is quite high. When you look at the fact that Nigeria, for instance, which has a very long relationship with the People's Republic of China, and it sends 42 officers every year. You can see the kind of inroads that China has made with countries that do not have that kind of history with the PLA. It's demand-driven.

Foreign training is a popular activity for African countries. It allows you to update your own training. It gives you access to foreign technology, to foreign military doctrine. It allows you to strengthen political ties, and it allows you to develop capacity back home. It is popular regardless of who provides it, right? African countries are not really choosy. They will send their officers to whoever can provide them the quotas for training. And when you talk to some of these officers, they'll tell you that there has traditionally been a preference to send officers to the United States. That is where they want to be. When they come back from West Point or when they come back from Sandhurst [in the United Kingdom] or when they come back from Saint-Cyr in France. Everybody knows that these are the cream…the heartbeat of our military.

But if Nanjing Military Academy, or if Dalian Naval Academy, comes along and says, "Hey, I'm giving you a hundred slots over the next two years," that's where they're going to send their people because there's that huge demand. China has understood that very well and has really leveraged this with its engagement. But there are other areas of engagement.

China, since 2008, has conducted anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast. In 2017, these operations were upgraded when China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Now, that base, according to the Chinese government, was supposed to provide support to these operations, but if you study it, you find that it does a lot more than just that. It does security cooperation, it does training, it does military exercises with African forces
and so on.

This is a major area. There has been a lot of speculation that given the rapid expansion of the Chinese economic footprint on the African continent and the expansion of China's diplomatic engagements, that the People's Republic [of China] might be interested in negotiating with different African countries to establish a second military facility over the next, say, five to seven years. There's a lot of speculation around that.

Then we're also beginning to see the presence of Chinese security firms in different African countries. We have seen that in Zimbabwe, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Zambia, and so on, right? The use of these security firms to provide intelligence and equipment that can help local partners to surveil threats to Chinese interests, because the economic interests are quite huge. I would say [Chinese] state-owned enterprises have been relying on these entities. That is something that we're likely to see increase.

China has also been deploying peacekeepers. China deploys the biggest contingent of all the permanent members of the [United Nations] Security Council combined and 80% of these forces are deployed in African missions. A few years ago, we saw China taking an unprecedented initiative by raising an 8,000-strong rapid reaction force, which it has placed at the disposal of the United Nations for use in crisis situations. Now, this move was very popular with African governments because African governments have been demanding more and more engagement in peacekeeping and peace enforcement and capacity building in those areas from its traditional partners. China, again, has come on board and has understood that demand signal.

If you look at peacekeeping, the use of security firms, the anti-piracy patrolswhen you look at military  education, professional military training, military salesyou find that there's a basket of areas in which China is engaging militarily and security wise on the African

Eleanor M. Albert: Absolutely. So I want to get into some of the proactive steps that China is taking to engage in this preventative work that you were talking about earlier Sheena. From your vantage point, what are kinds of security partnerships that China has developed overseas? I'm kind of curious to get a sense of the landscape of the types of partnerships that China is developing.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: They come in a couple of different forms. One is traditional PLA military diplomacy, and actually the PLA Navy is one of the more active services in that realm. The piece that I focus on, more partly because it wasn't getting as much attention, and it became really important after this 2017 exhortation to adopt a global vision in state security work, was the role of Chinese law enforcement agencies. That took a range of forms.

Some of it was stationing more police liaisons abroad. A number of countries have police liaisons in their embassies to handle law enforcement cooperation—a citizen who's been accused of a crime, who either needs to come back to, say, the United States, or there's an issue where it often requires interface with Chinese law enforcement, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism trafficking. So police liaisons are a feature of some embassy presence. And in China's case, the number of police liaisons and the number of countries in which they were stationed increased quite a bit.

The other thing is that the minister of public security and other public security officials became more active diplomatically, and then China began doing a lot of training of police officials. There's something called the Lianyungang Forum, a gathering that's been going on, gosh, it must be for almost 10 years now. There was a brief hiatus during COVID[-19]. It has been rebranded in some documents as the Global Public Security Cooperation Forum, which is a mouthful, but a little clearer about the purpose.

It's a global gathering of law enforcement agencies; I think Interpol usually sends a representative. China has hosted it for the past couple of years to talk about law enforcement cooperation, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, but also globally. Hosting these kinds of new forums, providing training; in some cases, there are expos or conferences where police and surveillance equipment have been sold in conjunction with some of these fora. Xi Jinping offered both at the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] and via the Global Security Initiative to train police and security officials in both Southeast Asia and Central Asia. The training seems to be a little bit more focused on different pieces of China's backyard, but that's a big piece of the outreach as well. The rhetoric is quite explicit that there's a goal here of sharing China's experience of building what they call a “safe China” and its model of law enforcement and trying to share that with the world as a potential example.

Eleanor M. Albert: I wanted to ask you, Paul, about policing. Does that kind of fit into some of the military training that China has been involved with and the military education? There's been a lot of fervor about the role of police training and Chinese police being present elsewhere in the world.

Paul Nantulya: It's an important area of engagement. Between 2016 and 2018, over 2,000 law enforcement, police intelligence and paramilitaries received training in different academies run by the People's Armed Police and the Ministry of Public Security, the MPS.

There's a whole range of schoolsthe People's Armed Police Academy in Beijing, different police training schools around the countrythat train these African forces. It's a growing area of engagement. We've seen some practical manifestations of this. Last year, Ethiopia became the latest African country to sign an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security to deploy Chinese law enforcement and police to work together with their Ethiopian counterparts to protect Belt and Road investments.

Now, we've seen similar arrangements in Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia, and Kenya, where they were deployed to train and to protect the standard-gauge railway and to bring up a local Kenyan police force. We've seen that kind of activity in Egypt, Morocco, we've seen it in Algeria.

Some of it is also aimed at giving the People's Republic of China some visibility with regard to individuals or entities that are deemed to be threats to China domestically. For instance, last year, Chinese special police forces and Ugandan counterparts engaged in an operation on Ugandan soil to apprehend members of a suspected Chinese gang. They were able to apprehend some of the suspects, but others fled across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In neighboring Kenya, Chinese and Kenyan law enforcement engaged in an operation that apprehended Taiwanese and mainland Chinese who were removed from Kenya and ended up in Chinese jails for different offenses. And this was despite the fact that there was a legal process between the Kenyan security forces and the courts that questioned this particular activity. We've seen similar activities in Angola, in Morocco, and Egypt.

It's significant because 10 years ago, China did not have a single extradition treaty. Extradition treaties allow you to conduct these sorts of operations. China did not have a single extradition treaty in Africa, but now they're growing. China has about, I think, six or seven extradition treaties. And if you read the China-Africa action plans, which basically lay out the China-Africa cooperation framework at a strategic level, law enforcement, policing, and extradition treaties are included as strategic priorities in these documents.

 Eleanor M. Albert: Turning back to you, Sheena, what would you say that some of the components of that Chinese security model are in terms of the policing? What are the things that we might recognize as, say, a Chinese model? Is it an increased use of surveillance technology? Is it certain type of policing techniques or tactics?

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: The technology plays a pretty heavy role, and that's often one of the areas of emphasis. The Ministry of Public Security (I think it was in 2021) co-hosted an event with the Foreign Ministry where they brought in foreign diplomats and other folks and showed examples of Chinese policing. One of the ways that the surveillance state has been marketed or public security officials have emphasized its benign purposes is, for example, finding lost children or lost elderly people with impaired memory or impaired cognitive function who wander away from home and get lost. And, "Look, we were able to locate them and return them to their family, and isn't this wonderful?" That's a way of presenting the positive effects or positive uses of some of this capacity. So I think the model does say, "Here's how we use these tools. Here's how we use them to combine with other sources of information and other parts of training and tactics to provide public services." That is generally the approach.

There is also, I think, pretty good evidence that these tools are of interest to leaders in countries where they might have secondary uses. And some of the things like the Huawei Safe City program, and some of them do go to places like Germany or other European consolidated democracies that have very strong civil liberties, privacy of data oversight. The impact of the tool is probably very different in that context than it might be in either a completely authoritarian environment or an electoral or hybrid authoritarian environment that just doesn't have strong civil liberties, data, privacy protection, and other oversight

So, it's important to remember that because the tools can be used for these different purposes, they can also be marketed in different ways. It's just not all that clear that they're that effective for general crime control outside of a Chinese context. The data on that is very mixed. The evidence does not seem conclusive that this is all that effective at the purposes for which it's being marketed, which is public safety and crime control, which is another really interesting and important point when you look at how these tools could be used or misused.

Eleanor M. Albert: This brings us to an interesting segue because in talking about how you market some of this technology and this model that's clearly approaching it from the recipient perspective, but I'm curious about what the benefits of these partnerships are for Beijing. What's in it for Chinese leadership?

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: They're really individualized because Chinese interests are different in different countries and different regions. Police training and law enforcement cooperation seems particularly heavy on the ground in terms of training numbers of police officers in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. That's because that's China's regional periphery where there are direct security interests by virtue of geographic borders. For example, in a paper I did some time ago on Xinjiang, China was quite concerned in the 2014 to 2017 period about overseas Uyghurs who had gone and maybe made a contact with militant groups in Southeast Asia and then the focus shifted to Syria. When we look at, “Why is there a police and law enforcement outreach in Central Asia?” in particular, the concern about the regional environment’s impact on Xinjiang's stability and the party's ability to hold on to stability in Xinjiang is a big driver of why that's important.

Then, in Southeast Asia, similarly, it is China's regional backyard. Some of the other counter-terrorism and law enforcement cooperation, other security partnerships are particularly directed at places along the Belt and Road, for example, in the Middle East and North Africa where there's a larger Chinese commercial or economic presence and concerns about the security of China's overseas citizens and companies. There's this idea that the Chinese state projects beyond the physical borders of the PRC in the form of these overseas companies and people. Even though they're overseas, they still are China and require protecting, partly I think, because again, they're at that point where internal and external security intersect and that's something that Xi Jinping is very concerned about.

The partnerships seem pretty closely correlated to me with those interests and with concerns about the potential for instability to harm Chinese interests, and in particular, the ruling ability of the Chinese Communist Party.

What's interesting too is most recently we've seen attention to the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and I think it's too early to say exactly what this is and how consequential it's going to be. Early writing from some of the Chinese scholars, particularly at the think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, CICIR, talked about it as sort of an extension of the Comprehensive National Security concept, a projection of it abroad in a way of harmonizing China's own security with the common security of the world, which is a bigger phrase you hear in Chinese diplomatic speak.

We've seen this broader pitch via GSI that the American-led way of ordering security in the international environment is destabilizing; it creates security for some at the expense of others. I think this is an attempt to provide an alternative vision of what security is and how it's provided and to do so in a way that is friendlier to the ruling interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

Eleanor M. Albert: Paul, you talked a little bit about why African countries partner with China. That's definitely much more at an executive level. And I'm curious what the popular reaction to some of these security partnerships is like. Is it seen as a positive capacity building exercise, or is there any apprehension to having a larger security presence coming from China?

Paul Nantulya: Eleanor, on the government side, Chinese security corporation is very popular. It is popular because they get the quotas. China is providing many more quotas, sometimes by a factor of one to seven or one to eight when you ask these African officers than the United States, the United Kingdom, or France. There's a demand for that kind of training. That's the first element. 

The second element when it comes to the procurement of weaponry; Chinese weaponry is cheaper. The processes of getting that weaponry is much faster because if you procure weaponry from the United States, you have to go through many hoops: human rights controls, end user controls, and so on. You have to tick many boxes.

For China, these boxes are not there. So African countries are able to procure that equipment quickly. Now, Chinese equipment has had a reputation of not being as good as, for instance, American equipment, but this is beginning to change. This equipment is becoming more sophisticated. It's becoming more durable, but it's still affordable. This becomes very attractive for African countries.

The third element is the credits that African countries have access to in order to buy this weaponry. Some of them are provided by private, non-state Chinese companies. Others are provided by defense companies like Norinco, the [China] North Industries Corporation. It signs agreements with all these different countries, and it is able to provide credit to African countries to be able to purchase this equipment.

Then you also have very flexible arrangements, flexible financing. You have resource swaps. For instance, the DRC has this kind of arrangement. Angola has this kind of arrangement where you pay for Chinese hardware using revenues or future revenues from resources, minerals, and things like that.  China is able to position itself as a preferred partner.

When it comes to civil society, movements that have been or continue to fight for democracy and human rights and fair elections, the picture is very different. China doesn't do very well in this sector. First of all, they tend to view their own governments as highly corrupt and highly compromised without moral principles. It turns people off that before every election, you're going to see a sharp increase in procurement of batons, of tear gas, of armored police personnel carriers. And there's been videos on Chinese social media, for instance, that have shown some of these equipment, which is destined for African countries.

So when you look at that segment of the population in Africa, Chinese security engagement is not welcome. It's something to be feared. It is something to be suspicious of. And because these governments are so unpopular, Chinese partnership is viewed as enabling bad behavior, enabling bad governance. So China then, it becomes very, very sensitive for China. These same advocates for democracy are the same people that face this weaponry deployed on the streets.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen an upsurge in protests in Africa.  Concurrently, we are seeing an uptick in security forces clamping down on these protests, and these security forces don't manufacture that equipment. That equipment is coming from somewhere. A lot of it is coming from China. Some of it is coming from Russia. Some of it is coming from North Korea.

The point I'm making here is that among civil society, among democracy movements, among young people, Chinese security assistance is not always welcome. Now, the peacekeeping side is fine. People do welcome that. [But] I think there's a problem when international partners supply governments with gear that is then deployed against them on the streets.

Eleanor M. Albert: To wrap up, I'm curious to see what you, Sheena, think some of the big misconceptions are about China's overseas security partnerships. A lot of third-party countries have to make choices about who they partner with, what the risks are, what the benefits are. What are the misconceptions about thinking about these partnerships?

Sheena Chestnut Greitens: When I look at security assistance, I am really interested in the drivers on the recipient country side because I think that that matters. It's a mistake to view all of these decisions through the flat prism of U.S.-China relations, because often what countries are doing is trying to solve a problem that is much more preexisting. It's not a function of the U.S.-China competition, it's, "I've got a public safety problem. Huawei claims they've got a solution that will help me do a better job. That will attract investment, that will make my country better off, and no one else has a better idea. Let's see if we could afford this and if we think it's worth it."

That's not necessarily a U.S.-China issue, except in so far that it does have real potential impact on democracy, on civil liberties. It may or may not work on crime control investment and therefore investment in economic growth and some of the things that that leader is hoping to produce. But the United States won't get very far if it goes around in sort of finger shakes and scolds and doesn't provide an alternative. And so I think that it's important to try to provide those alternatives.

I think one of the big misconceptions is this tendency to view third-party decisions too much through this binary lens of U.S.-China competition, when in fact other countries have their own interests and challenges that they're trying to find solutions to.

So I see my role as a scholar and an analyst is to try to understand what China is doing, and that means trying to get inside this intellectual framework and say, “What is the thought process that produced these decisions?” I might not agree with them. That's not a moral evaluation. It's, “How did this cause produce this effect?” Because if we don't adequately understand the cause and effect, we aren't going to be able to affect it.

The misconceptions probably are this tendency to view everything through the U.S.-China lens and maybe the tendency to try to jump too quickly to, "Well, what do we do about it?" And so often what I'm trying to do is say, "Well, hold on, let's back up. Why is this happening?" Because that might really affect what solutions make sense at all.

Again, what's the demand side of this? And to the extent that what China is doing is appealing to a void in global security governance, which is what it talks about doing, then that is a global challenge that we, whether it's in the United States or as an international community, need to think about and take seriously.

That doesn't mean that China is proposing a solution that will be net positive. I have grave concerns about a lot of the effects of what China is doing, but I think that we need to separate that a bit from, is there a real problem here that the international community needs to address? These security partnerships are, in some cases, capitalizing on a broader dissatisfaction that the international community and the United States need to listen to and respond to. People everywhere want to be safe and want to feel like their communities are secure; that's a legitimate desire. It can be exploited or misused or taken advantage of, and we don't want that to happen, so what is the alternative as an international community, and what is the United States willing to offer as an alternative, that would be appealing to those countries.  

Eleanor M. Albert: Paul, what do you find to be the misconceptions about China's overseas security partnerships in Africa?

Paul Nantulya: Eleanor, that is an important question because there are lots of misconceptions or what I would call myths about China-Africa relations. When you look at the actual data, you find the story is completely different. One myth is that the People's Liberation Army is interested in deploying forces in order to secure mines and that sort of thing, so as to extract resources from the African continent. The empirical evidence is telling us that the People's Liberation Army, first of all, still has a very deep aversion to putting boots on the ground. So that, I think is the first misconception.

The second misconception is that the PLA, the People's Liberation Army, is going to follow the models that have been used by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. When you look at the military installations that these countries have on the continent... The British military presence in Kenya is significant, right? This is over thousands of hectares of land in the northeast of the country. The presence is such that Britain is able to conduct battalion brigade-size, even division-size exercises every year. China has nothing in comparison. Even the Chinese base in Djibouti is really a fraction of that.

What the empirical evidence is showing us by contrast is that China favors a dual-use model predicated on a light military footprint.  The Djibouti military base started out as a port development. It was a commercial port that was upgraded to be able to serve a military function. There's that mixing of military and commercial interest that I think is very attractive to China for ideological and political reasons, and also reasons of image. It is easier for China to explain to African audiences that it's not mimicking what its Western competitors have done. And that its activities are really in support of things like peacekeeping, humanitarian, and so on. This is political communication.

Having said that, there are 40 port developments across Africa that are either financed, or being built, or being managed, or all three by Chinese state-owned firms. There's a lot of speculation that the Djibouti model might be used in one of those. But even if that happens, I would say that you're still going to see a light footprint, and you're still going to see this dual civilian military use model.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.