In a move that has raised as many questions about its wider intent, China has announced it will send between 500 and 600 troops to Mali under a post-French UN peacekeeping mission. While the move is being welcomed in Mali as an international contribution to helping control Islamist fighters holed up in the exposed mountains in the north of the country, some external observers are viewing the contribution with a more jaundiced eye.
Mali is due to hold elections in late July, following a coup against its elected government last year.
Despite opposing the use of peacekeepers as international interference when it joined the UN in 1971, since the early 1990s China has deployed troops to 13 internationally sanctioned theatres, including to East Timor and a non-combat mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It currently has more than 2000 troops deployed in UN peacekeeping operations.
China does not have any direct economic or diplomatic interests in Mali. But it has been increasingly making its presence felt in Africa as it continues to search for more resources to help fuel its growing economy. China currently has investments across Africa estimated at more than US$100 billion.
China’s main involvement in Africa is in Sudan, Algeria, Zambia and South Africa, with lesser investments in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria and eight other countries. China’s trade with Africa began to take off around 2003, jumping ahead around 2007, corresponding to the establishment of the private equity China-Africa Development Fund. According to the China Development Bank:
"CADFund works differently from economic aid to Africa in that it is not allocated by nation but independently operated and based on market economy principles, the Fund invests in projects and requires investment benefits."
Last Saturday, the chairman of China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Zhang Dejiang, said China was willing to work with African countries to "advance the China-Africa new-type strategic partnership to a higher level". Chinese President Xi Jinping's visited Africa in March to promote the "strategic partnership".
China’s troops in Mali are not expected to be on the front line fighting the Islamist insurgents who, until France’s intervention in January this year, had seized the north of the country and threatened to overthrow Mali’s government. However, the move is being seen as a further illustration of China’s increasingly proactive, indeed assertive, international policy.
As with its "assistance" elsewhere, after the troops’ deployment, China is expected to ask for a reciprocal favour. Mali is the world’s third largest producer of gold, and one of the poorest countries, with a per capita income of $1.25 a day.
It probably felt satisfying, being French President Francois Hollonde, during his almost George W. Bush-like ‘mission accomplished’ moment in Timbuktu recently. French forces spear-headed a quick campaign in Mali to defeat Islamist insurgents, saving the country’s fragile, government from collapse and the preventing the establishment of a new home for Islamist global terrorism.
But the 3,500 French troops – around a third of the anti-Islamist forces in Mali - are now preparing to leave. What they are leaving is displaced and desperate Islamist forces holed up in the inhospitable Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali’s border with Algeria.