China is a major world power that has pursued a relatively balanced response to the recent military coups in Africa and the regimes the coups installed. The Chinese response has been primarily centered on maintaining support for peaceful settlements grounded in political dialogue and negotiation. This is consistent with the general trajectory of Chinese policy in the region, which is premised on the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of African countries. China thereby seeks to demonstrate how it is different from Western powers, which have adopted various forms of interventionist policies, including military involvement. China’s approach could make transitional regimes and the people of those countries more receptive to its strategies in the post-coup period. The recent coups have many current and future ramifications for Chinese interests, which has prompted Beijing to adopt certain approaches in responding to post-coup transformations in Africa.
There are many potential shifts that could result from the recent military coups in Africa. This could have various ramifications for Chinese interests and objectives, including with regard to the following:
1. Risks for the Chinese Belt and Road initiative: The risks to Belt and Road infrastructure are primarily the result of political instability during transitional periods in countries that have recently experienced military coups. For example, Gabon had joined the initiative after signing a memorandum of understanding with China on 28 May 2018. Gabon entered a "comprehensive cooperation strategic partnership" with China during the rule of ousted President Ali Bongo, during an official visit by the former Gabonese president to China in April of this year. This category of partnership is the highest level in China’s classification of bilateral relations. Former Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang had also made a visit to Gabon in January 2023.
Gabon’s continued support for the Chinese initiative is of course now contingent upon the stances and priorities adopted by General Brice Oligui Nguema’s transitional military regime. The Belt and Road Initiative is one of the pillars of the Chinese strategy for bolstering its global influence. This enormous infrastructural project aims to expand Chinese trade connections through building ports, railroads, airports, and industrial complexes via two main routes: the Maritime Silk Road and the land-based Silk Road. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the initiative in 2013, and Africa is a key part of this.
2. Effects on Chinese economic interests: The recent African military coups could have both current and future effects on Chinese economic interests. First, the huge Chinese Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC) has had to suspend its project to build the Kandadji electric dam, located 180 kilometers northwest of the Nigerien capital of Niamey. The dam project will cost $808 million and the Chinese company announced that coup-related sanctions had cut off the project’s main funding. The dam is projected to generate 629 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year and will support the energy sector in Niger.
Second, with regard to potential economic impacts, there is uncertainty regarding the future of investments linked to the Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec. Sinopec had signed an agreement with the Nigerien government last May to expedite development of oil and gas resources, given the traditional dominance of the oil sector in Niger. There is also uncertainty about the fate of PetroChina’s huge oil pipeline project in Niger, which was set to be completed by the end of this year. The two-thousand-kilometer pipeline, which was launched in 2019 and is currently 75 percent complete, would become the longest cross-border pipeline in Africa. It links the Agadem fields in southeastern Niger with the Port Seme terminal in Benin. The Nigerien government previously estimated in 2019 that this pipeline could generate up to a quarter of the country’s GDP and half its tax revenue.
The planned Chinese industrial zone in the Nigerien capital of Niamey is also likely to be affected. This is something that Jiang Feng, the Chinese ambassador to Niger, had discussed with deposed President Bazoum directly before the coup. This zone could have significant impacts on food, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and real estate sectors.
Generally speaking, all Chinese investments and economic interests in Niger are likely to be affected by the coup. This is particularly true given that China is the second largest investor in the Nigerien economy after France, especially in the energy sector. Potential negative fallout also extends Chinese strategic interests in Gabon. China imports about 22 percent of its manganese ore from Gabon. Chinese companies also control more than half of the commercial logging areas in the country, even though Chinese imports from Gabon make up less than 1 percent and 1.3 percent of Chinese demand for crude oil and lumber, respectively.
3. Negative impacts on Chinese military interests: Chinese military objectives have also been negatively affected by the recent African military coups. This is due to the uncertainty regarding a potential Chinese naval base in the Atlantic Ocean on the Mandji (Port-Gentil) peninsula, which is located 90 miles from Libreville, the capital of Gabon. There had been an oral agreement between the the deposed president of Gabon, Ali Bongo, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. According to this agreement, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would establish a military base there. For many years, China has wanted to gain a foothold along the Atlantic Ocean in order to further its strategic interests, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative. Establishing this base will now be contingent upon the degree of cooperation between China and the transitional military regime in Gabon during the coming period.
If this base is established in Gabon, it would be the second of its kind for China in Africa. The first Chinese military base in Africa was set up in Djibouti in August 2017. This base aimed to strengthen Chinese economic interests in the Horn of Africa, especially regarding oil imports from the Middle East. Forty percent of all Chinese imports pass through the Indian Ocean, and this base has served as a naval facility to support anti-piracy operations. It also protected Chinese foreign assets and facilitated the evacuation of nationals during various crisis situations. The base has contributed to Chinese diplomatic efforts in Africa and provided assistance to growing numbers of Chinese citizens who are involved in business and living in Africa or South Asia, or who work for state-owned or private Chinese companies in these areas.
4. Taking advantage of growing hostility against the West: China, like Russia, is trying to make the most of growing hostility towards former occupiers, especially France. There has been growing anti-French sentiment in Africa, whether with regard to transitional military regimes or broad sectors of society in all the countries that have experienced military coups since 2020 (Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon). France has been blamed as the primary cause of deteriorating social, economic, and political circumstances in these countries.
For its part, China is trying to take advantage of its lack of a colonial legacy in Africa. It presents itself as continuing its current model of non-interference in the internal affairs of African nations. It has focused on economic tools first and foremost, whether through trade, investment, grants, soft loans, or development aid. These economic avenues are central to Chinese involvement in Africa. By contrast, the West has pursued efforts to spread its version of democracy, which it considers to be the best solution to African political challenges, and which it has used to intervene in the affairs of other countries.
There are many key factors shaping China’s response to recent post-military coup shifts in Africa, including the following:
1. "Quiet diplomacy" with coup regimes: This has become a prominent piece of the Chinese response to the West African military coups, perhaps with the exception of Guinea’s coup in September 2021. China opposed the coup in Guinea and demanded that former President Alpha Condé be immediately released. Meanwhile, the Chinese position on other regional coups has been much softer. For example, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called for resolving conflicts through dialogue in Burkina Faso following the military coup that ousted elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in early February 2022.
The Chinese stance on Burkina Faso’s coup was consistent with its reaction to the military coup in Niger on 26 July 2023. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 3 August that it believed that Niger and other countries in the region had the wisdom and capacity to find a political solution after the 26 July coup. It called on relevant parties to restore the constitutional system as quickly as possible.
China took a similar position on Gabon. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated directly after the 30 August military coup that China hoped that relevant parties in the country would act on according to the best interests of the people and nation. China expressed its wishes that disputes be peacefully resolved through dialogue and that the constitutional system of the state be restored. The Chinese reaction to the transitional military regimes was at odds with that of the West, especially France. France expressed that it was considering military intervention in Niger against the coup forces to restore ousted President Bazoum.
2. Establish ties with transitional military regimes: Beijing has sought to establish ties with transitional military regimes in countries that experienced coups. China thereby seeks to preserve various interests in the region. For example, Jiang Feng, the Chinese ambassador to Niger, held a meeting with Nigerien Minister of Defense, General Salifou Modi, in early September 2023. In the meeting, China affirmed its support for Niger. This was followed by a meeting between the Chinese ambassador and Ali Lamine Zeine, the prime minister appointed by the transitional military council. During that meeting, the Chinese government sought to affirm its intent to play a goodwill role towards the countries in the region. It indicated that China would adhere to its role as a mediator in times of crisis and fully respect the sovereignty and internal affairs of African countries. China also indicated that it would stand with the people of Niger during their difficult political situation, and that it would continue to pursue all projects that furthered Nigerien interests.
3. Supporting transitional military regimes in international forums: China intends to support transitional military regimes at the UN, especially the UN Security Council. It has used its veto power to protect and gain the support of regimes that came to power through military coups in recent years. For example, China has abstained from voting on resolutions for imposing UN sanctions against Mali’s transitional military council, led by Assimi Goïta, after his leadership failed to keep its promise to hold elections and reestablish civil rule in late 2021.
4. Protect Chinese interests during transitional periods: China seeks to maintain its ongoing interests in various countries that have undergone military coups in recent years. This includes strengthening economic ties by preserving major investments in the energy sector in Niger and in lithium mines in Mali. It also has developed military ties including through offering aid, military scholarships, small arms, and investing in communications and security surveillance systems in Burkina Faso. It aims to control natural resources, including through Chinese extraction companies operating in Guinea. There are fourteen state-owned and private Chinese companies working in the aluminum business. China is the largest consumer and producer of aluminum in the world, and imported 52.7 million tons of bauxite (aluminum ore) from Guinea in 2020. Furthermore, Chinese companies have invested in the field of iron ore extraction, including through the Chinese company Baowu, which has obtained the rights for exploration and extraction in the Simandou mine in Guinea. Simandou contains the largest untapped deposits of iron ore in the world and the project encompasses reserves of more than 10 billion tons of high-quality iron ore.
In conclusion, China has adopted a strategy of adjustment and adaptation in dealing with transitional regimes established after recent military coups in Africa. This is linked to Chinese efforts to preserve its own objectives and interests, especially in the economic sphere. It also seeks to fill the void left by Western forces, especially France, in military coup states in Africa. Finally, China hopes to outpace the US as the latter tries to contain transitional military regimes in these African countries.