China’s Great Game in the Sahel
Samir Bhattacharya, Senior Research Associate, VIF

On November 29–30, 2021, the Eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), under the theme "Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era," took place in Dakar, Senegal. [1] During the meeting, Senegalese Foreign Minister Assata Tall Sall encouraged China to participate in the Sahel conflict settlement process. [2] As with Russia, if China manages to control the current intensity of conflicts in the region, it will surely raise China's peace and security game in the Sahel to a new level.

And China is up to the challenge, as President Xi Jinping's FOCAC speech demonstrated when he mentioned ten new peace and security initiatives for the area. This is in addition to China's ongoing support for the African Union's (AU) security forces. In addition, China promised to assist African nations in their attempts to independently uphold regional security, combat terrorism, and hold joint peacekeeping exercises. [3]

The Sahel comprises Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal. Regular droughts and a surge in conflict over depleted resources like water and pasture are its defining traits. Three of them, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad have undergone coups in the past two years. And Mali had two consecutive coups in two years. [4] The growth of transnational criminal organisations and the quick ascent of Islamist extremist groups and movements are continuously fuelling the conflict. As terrorist groups have plagued sub-Saharan nations, this has not only unseated, mostly Western-modelled democracies but also revealed a vast area for engagement in the Sahel's security. Besides, it has caused an immense loss in human numbers. Between 2014, Operation Barkhane was officially launched, and in 2020, the number of conflict-related deaths increased by 1,376 per cent, and violence spread from Mali into Niger and Burkina Faso, slowly spreading towards littoral states down the south.

Technically, these issues fall under the category of internal affairs for China. China has criticised involvement on numerous occasions, branding it as an act of imperialism, and indicated that it prefers regional political initiatives and mediation to end civil conflict. China has traditionally resisted calls for intervention, although a 2019 white paper on defence laid the foundation for China to assume a global security presence consistent with its standing as a great power.[5] Despite its massive investments and the growing number of Chinese nationals facing security threats, Chinese leaders have been keen to maintain a modest military presence despite its significant investments and the ever-increasing number of Chinese nationals facing security challenges. The focus remained on a softer approach that distinguishes it from its Western rivals in Africa. However, the recent appointment of their first Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa suggests a shift in China's approach to its African policy. [6]

For the past nine years, France has served as the region's primary security provider in the conflict-ridden Sahel region. France intervened in 2013 in an operation dubbed Serval, which was succeeded in 2014 by a broader mission of 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel dubbed Barkhane. However, France has been dealing with an increase in public animosity. It has recently faced violent protests from civilians in Mali as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Subsequently, France withdrew its final unit from Mali in August 2022, more than nine years after its first participation, primarily due to the alleged involvement of a Russian Private Military Company. The decision of other European nations supplying security to the region, such as Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Lithuania, would undoubtedly be impacted by France's withdrawal. [7]

On the other hand, as part of its trans-Sahara counterterrorism policy tool, the US has offered modest security assistance to these countries in an effort to assist them in addressing their domestic terrorist threats. Some experts claim that the US strategy should be expanded to include a stronger diplomatic focus because it has been unduly militaristic and has focussed on militant groups. Another pattern has recently started to take shape, with the US turning its attention to the wealthier coastal countries of West Africa, particularly along critical Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes. The United States conducts about $4 billion in two-way trade using this passage. [8]

Now, the Sahel's rapidly deteriorating security situation, caused by the US and France's dwindling presence there, has made room for new players in the security industry, most notably China and Russia. China initially took part in non-combatant peace operations in 1998 when PLA formally initiated training for civilian police in peacekeeping operations.[9] But it took China 14 years to send out its first combat-ready peacekeepers in 2012, participating in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).[10] In terms of its solo action, China conducted its largest-ever overseas non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), evacuating more than 35,000 Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011.[11] However, things began to change after its intervention in Mali in 2013 when China sent a sizable detachment of personnel, including combat forces, for the first time and also supported the UN mission there with ground combat troops.[12]

China is also actively supporting the G5 Sahel security and counterterrorism operations, working with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In 2019, China provided aid worth $45.56 million to the security and counterterrorism operations of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. [13] Additionally, China paid $1.5 million for the operations of the G5 permanent secretariat. [14] Thus, within a span of a decade, China occupies a predominant space in the security of the region.

China's involvement in the security of the Sahel has primarily coincided with the nation's expanding commercial interests in the region. Beijing's approach to security is motivated by the need to protect its commercial endeavours, economic statecraft, and the expanding number of Chinese workers in the area. China's recent interest in Sahelian security also fits well with its overall plan to enhance its reputation as a responsible global superpower, enhancing its legitimacy and stature while strengthening ties with the Sahel countries.

A significant mineral resource hotspot, the Sahel is abundant in bauxite, manganese, phosphates, iron ore, gold, but also petroleum. The China National Petroleum Company in Chad has controlled the country's oil production since 2003.[15] Crude oil is the principal export commodity for Chad and China is the leading export destination. Additionally, the Sahel region has substantial levels of uranium, especially in Niger. China has made significant investments in the oil industry in Niger alone. In 2021, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), now known as China Petroleum Pipeline Engineering Co. Ltd. (CPP), started the construction of a 1950 km long, 20-inch-diameter transnational crude oil pipeline connecting Agadem Rift Basin (ARB) oilfield in Niger with the Atlantic oil terminal of Sèmè-Kraké port in Benin.[16] Known as Niger-Benin Export Pipeline (NBEP), the project is expected to be ready by 2024. Once prepared, the pipeline will increase Niger's oil production from the current capacity of 20,000 barrels a day to 120,000 barrels a day.[17]

The fifth-largest exploitable uranium reserves in the world, or about 7% of the total, are found in the northern desert region of Niger. China has begun several uranium extraction-related infrastructure projects in Niger. For instance, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the government of Niger, by a joint partnership called Somina, run the Azelik mine. [18] Through the so-called Health Silk Road and its mask and vaccine diplomacy, China also increased its influence in the region during the COVID-19 epidemic, giving 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Niger.

In 2021, China's Ganfeng Lithium Co bought 50 per cent stakes of the Goulamina mine in Mali, paying $130 million, reflecting its ambition to ensure the supply of a critical commodity essential for manufacturing electric-vehicle batteries.[19] Gold, iron ore, phosphates, uranium, manganese, and bauxite are all abundant in Mali. China provided Mali with more than $9 million worth of military equipment, including weapons, ammunition, trucks, transport equipment, and security, as part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) inked in 2021. [20] In the same year, Mali received a donation of 835,200 doses of SINOVAC vaccine.[21] Prior to that, Mali secured contracts worth over $11 billion with China to fund two significant railway projects. [22]

In Mauritania, China is becoming increasingly interested in fish, mineral, and energy resources. The Poly Hong Dong Fishery Company, accused of depleting local fish populations, has a $200 million fishing facility in Nouadhibou. [23] A donation of 50,000 Sinopharm vaccines was given to Mauritania in March 2021. [24]

In 2018, Burkina Faso rescinded recognition of Taiwan and opened diplomatic ties with China. Immediately after that, Wang Yi made a trip to Burkina Faso in 2019 and pledged $44 million. [25] With 72 scholarships for Burkinabe students and government representatives to attend military academies in China, Ouagadougou has also profited from Chinese military training. As a matter of fact, China is only now beginning to make headway in Burkina Faso after Ouagadougou switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Only Burkina Faso, which had previously recognised Beijing in 1973, restored diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1994. The only African nation that still recognises Taipei is Eswatini, formerly Swaziland.

Clearly, China's chequebook diplomacy is working in the Sahel, and it is defeating India in another African territory. Governmental and private Indian investments in the Sahel region are still far below their potential; however, they are gradually gaining traction. In addition, this resource-rich region is vital to India's energy security. India imports around 20 per cent of its crude oil from Africa, and almost half of it comes from the region. Nigeria is the largest oil supplier for India from Africa. India started showing interest in Nigerian oil in 2001, and today it is the country that imports the most Nigerian oil, surpassing the US. In addition to Nigeria, India is also considering its energy diplomacy with Ghana and Niger.

India needs uranium to boost its nuclear energy production capacity. Currently, India imports uranium fuel from Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, France and Canada.[26] Going forward, India plans to purchase 100 tonnes of uranium in FY23 to fuel its nuclear power plants.[27] With its abundant stock of Uranium, Niger would be an ideal country for India to advance its nuclear ambition. Lithium, a crucial element for battery making, is abundant in Mali. As India gradually shifts to electric vehicles, securing a steady source of lithium is essential to advance its green transition without import dependency. It is crucial that India focus on trade for this region, particularly based on its resource needs, exploring win-win situations.

So far, China lacks military experience in Africa. It still lacks strong expeditionary capabilities abroad. In order to gain knowledge on the ground, China is concentrating on peacekeeping missions. In fact, Africa has once more become a battlefield for Cold War-style strategic diplomacy, in which all superpowers are occupied with courting important countries and competing for their support. Africa suffered greatly under colonialism and Western imperialism, and many African nations now see China as a serious alternative to the Western-dominated international system. Palpably, very few people would prefer to eschew the west in favour of China.

Nevertheless, this bodes well for Africa as two great powers are fighting for their attention. Undoubtedly, Beijing has a lot riding on the region's stability because it wants to stay there and play a bigger and bigger security role. As China's clout in the region grows, this will create problems for India. New Delhi may try to nudge France to get more active in the region and keep on providing an alternative to the region's growing dependence on China.


[1] David Thomas. “What did FOCAC 2021 deliver for Africa?” African Business. November 29, 2021.
[2]Mboya Cliff. “Will China get involved in the Sahel?” The Africa Report December 9, 2021.
[3]Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Full Text: Keynote speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at opening ceremony of 8th FOCAC ministerial conference. December 2, 2021.
[4]Bhattacharya Samir. “Africa: Looking Back at 2021 and Likely Trends in 2022”.Vivekananda International Foundation. January 3, 2022.
[5]Joshi Manoj. “China issues white paper on national defence: Picks up the US gauntlet.” ORF.
[6] “China's 1st Horn of Africa envoy offers to mediate in region”. ABC News. June 20, 2022.
[7] Bhattacharya Samir. “Political Crisis in Mali: Uneasy Present, Uncertain Future”. National Security Vol. 5, No. 2, 2022. (April - June 2022) Page 232-257, ISSN 25-81-9658 (O)
[8]Devermont Judd. “False Choices: U.S. Policy toward Coastal West Africa and the Sahel.” CSIS. June 24, 2021.
[9]Zürcher, Christoph. 2019. 30 years of Chinese peacekeeping. CIPS report (January 2019).
[10]Bowman Bradley and Lorraine Viña Morgan. “China’s Potemkin Peacekeeping”. The Dispatch. June 8, 2021.
[11]Marks Jesse. “China’s Evolving Conflict Mediation in the Middle East.” Middle East Institute. March 25, 2022.
[12]Lanteigne, M. (2019). China's UN Peacekeeping in Mali and Comprehensive Diplomacy. The China Quarterly, 239, 635-655.
[13] “China ready to help bring long-term peace to Sahel region: envoy”. Global Times. November 2020.
[14]Cheick Dara. “China’s Foreign Policy In The Sahel: Challenges And Prospects”. Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). May 25,2022.
[15]NakoMadjiasra “Chad fines China's CNPC unit $1.2 billion for environmental damage.” Reuters. March 21, 2014.
[16]Yihe Xu. “CNPC kicks off construction of Africa crude pipeline. Upstream. October 11, 2021.
[17] “Nigeria: China Builds 1,980km Oil Pipeline From Niger to Benin Republic
Petrocom. July 19,2021.
[18]Rosen Armin. “One uranium mine in Niger says a lot about China's huge nuclear-power ambitions”. October 24, 2015.
[19]Daly Tom. “China's Ganfeng to pay $130 million for stake in Mali lithium mine”. Reuters. June 14, 2021.
[20] “China donates military equipment valued at over six billion CFA francs to Mali”. Pan press. July 24, 2021.
[21] “Coronavirus: China offers Mali 835,000 doses of Sinovac vaccine”. Pan press. October 5,, 2021.
[22] “Mali says signed accords with China for projects worth $11 billion”. Reuters. September 15, 2014.
[23] “Mauritanians Protest Chinese Fishing After Deadly Incident.Africa Defense Forum. October 7, 2020.
[24] “Mauritania receives first COVID-19 vaccines from China”. Milken Institute. March 26, 2021.
[25]BurcuOana and Bertrand Eloïse.“Explaining China’s Latest Catch in Africa”.The Diplomat. January 16, 2019.
[26] “India exploring more countries for uranium imports”. Financial Express. October 4, 2013.
[27] “India to import 100 tonne of uranium to power nuclear power plants in FY23”.The Economic Times. March 31, 2022.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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