Until just a few weeks, security had not been expected to be a major topic at the December Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Johannesburg. In the span of just a few short weeks, terrorism and security issues will likely move close to the top of the agenda when Chinese president Xi Jinping meets with 50 plus African counterparts.
China’s vulnerability to terrorism was brazenly exposed when the self-proclaimed Islamic State killed Chinese national Fan Jinghui. That killing sparked an immediate backlash on Chinese social media with calls for Beijing to strike back against the terrorist group. Predictably, it didn’t take long for those online discussions to be quashed by the government.
Then, just a few days later, three more Chinese were killed by terrorists. This time at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates in the Malian capital of Bamako. The attackers stormed the Renaissance Blu Hotel where the three executives from the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation were shot.
These two events are just the latest attacks on Chinese nationals abroad, particularly in MENA and sub-Saharan Africa. Within the past couple of years, Chinese citizens have been taken captive by Boko Haram in Cameroon, kidnapped in Egypt and taken hostage in Sudan among other places. In Angola, the situation is so dire that a senior embassy official in Luanda made a rare public appeal to the government to do something or else future Chinese investment in the country could be at stake.
With each of these attacks, the perception at home is that China may now be a great power but one that can’t seem to protect its people abroad. This presents a real challenge for the government’s legitimacy because, really, Chinese officials don’t have a lot of options available to counter the rising threat of terrorism against their people and interests abroad.
Unlike the United States, France and Britain who have all made unilateral military deployments into other countries without U.N. authorization, the Chinese are bound by their own non-interference doctrine to avoid such interventions. Secondly, even if China did want to retaliate or take some other form of military action to combat violence against its interests, it’s not immediately clear that it has the capability to do so. Although rapidly modernizing, China’s ability to project force, especially using special operations forces far away from home, is questionable at best.
The Chinese clearly recognize the problem. The question is can they do anything about it? This week, Eric & Cobus discuss — in the podcast above — the new security realities confronting China’s engagement in Africa and MENA and explore what options, if any, policymakers have to confront the mounting threat against their people and interests.
Note: In the podcast, Eric incorrectly said that the Chinese ambassador to Luanda had issued the warning to the Angolan government about the high-frequency of kidnappings of Chinese nationals. It was actually the embassy’s first secretary, Zhao Haihan, who made the remarks during an interview.