The New Age of Proxy War? Sino-US Strategic Rivalry in the Congo
Over the past decade, sustained Sino-US acrimony has ushered in a new geopolitical division. Trends among commentators and analysts show a focus on the ramifications of this rivalry for the two nations and potential occurrence of Thucydides’ Trap. Yet less attention has been devoted to the smaller actors drawn into this conflict, either by unwitting proxy or voluntary alignment. Much of the growing rivalry between China and the US has been borne out on foreign territory. Across the globe, countries have become the battleground for a fierce war of competing geostrategic influences. Taking into consideration its removed nature, this conflict is not without similarities to previous cases of indirect confrontation - in mainstream media as in policy reports, the current rivalry between the US and China is being likened to a new Cold War. But just how reminiscent of previous Cold War conflict is the current sparring match? Are we witnessing the drawing of a new Iron Curtain across the world, heralding the rise of two blocs, each eager to garner the favour of middle powers and align themselves with emerging nation-states?
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) offers a prime example of an actor which has been involved in a US-China ‘proxy’ conflict both historically and in the present day.
The Rumble in the Jungle – Two powers squaring up
Chinese involvement in the Congo has a long history which can be split into two phases. The first phase took place in the 1960s, and is the closest instance of Cold War-style rivalry between the US and China in the Congo. While according to Steven Phillips (2008), during the Cold War period no US presidential administration viewed China as a threat of equal standing to that presented by the Soviet Union, China did still counter US forces during Congolese interventions. In the 1960-1965 aftermath of the DRC’s turbulent decolonization and independence, China took part in what effectively became a USSR-US-China proxy conflict - the Congo Crisis and Civil War. After a series of memoranda and reports by the Department of State and CIA officials, the US assessed that the USSR would exploit any instability created by the dissolution of colonial empires to develop and expand its presence in Africa, claiming a “classic communist effort [to] takeover government” was taking place (Turner, 2007). The US proceeded to back a number of pro-Western, anti-Soviet administrations through financial support and vote-buying (Office of the Historian, 2021). Following growing disenchantment with the established central government, the ‘Simbas’, a group of rebel forces guided by Maoist-Communist principles, took the city of Stanleyville in August 1964 (Ibid). China, alongside the USSR, Cuba and various African states offered support to the Simba militants through arms supply.
Was this genuinely a Cold war-style conflict, or simply a case of China supporting developing nations in the Bandung spirit? Though the Congolese Crisis can definitely be qualified an instance of US-USSR proxy conflict or capacity building it does not constitute as convincing a case for Sino-US proxy war. China’s role was minor compared to that of the Soviet Union; it is unlikely that their intervention was directly linked to any perceived threat from the US. At this stage the US’ direct adversary was almost solely the USSR, as by the early 1960s the Sino-Soviet split saw USSR and CCP intentions and actions increasingly divorced. Even at the time the extent of China’s involvement was not established fact. In 1964, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote: “What is very unclear is how deep the Chinese hand is in the rebel efforts. Harriman thinks it is pretty deep; most of the intelligence community thinks it is more marginal” (Weissman, 2014). Overarchingly, China remained relatively unengaged with the idea of national involvement in the Cold War. There was little to no use of the term ‘Cold War’ in China from late 1940s to 1970s; the word 冷战 [lěngzhàn] itself was circulated very rarely and generally only used in political rhetoric to refer to external US-Soviet conflict (Meyskens, 2020). Instead, Chinese intervention appears to have been linked to advocacy for wars of national liberation, motivated by the spread of the communist ideology.
The second phase is the more familiar story of the investment outflows that accompanied China’s gargantuan economic growth in the last quarter of the 20th century. Rather than an improvised bid for influence, Chinese engagement with Africa has been consistently increasing since the 1990s, when China’s economic growth and preparation for post-Cold War order impelled it to focus on developing ties with African nation-states. Guided by both geopolitical and geo-economic interests, China now seeks to integrate these nations into its Belt and Road Initiative while conveying the idea of a “win-win” cooperation (Nyabiage, 2021a). As part of this plan, it has signed a number of deals with the Congolese government; these guarantee Chinese firms access to mining resources in exchange for investment in national infrastructure projects.
Currently, Congo boasts 60% of worldwide cobalt ore reserves and is the leading copper producer in Africa (Nyabiage, 2021a). As a major player in the cobalt supply chain, Chinese investment has become the cornerstone of Congo's mining industry. Most mined cobalt is exported to Chinese factories, where it is then processed to make the lithium-ion batteries crucial to automobile and tech industries. Cobalt and copper resources are hence considered a strategic asset by China, making access to them a primary concern in its transition towards a greener economy (Ibid). As such it is no surprise that China has been pouring investments into the country’s mining industry - over US$10 billion since 2012 (Ibid). Over the past two decades, the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and frequent visits by high-ranking officials belie a strong incentive to cement diplomatic relations and increase economic opportunities in the region (Conteh-Morgan, 2018).
Yet the DRC no longer appears to be accepting that these deals be negotiated on China’s terms alone. Earlier this year, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi announced his intention to revise a Chinese mining deal which had been negotiated under the administration of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. Since the US$6 billion deal covering infrastructure and minerals was signed in 2008, the Congolese government claims to have reaped few benefits from the consortium of Chinese firms it worked with (Ibid). The agreement has also been critiqued for its contentious terms, lack of transparency over shareholding, environmental impact and abetment of local corruption. Current President Tshiskekedi adopted an unflinchingly harsh standpoint on the matter: “Some of our compatriots had badly negotiated the mining contracts. Worse, the little that goes to the state, they put in their own pockets” (Pollard, 2021). Yet Beijing has challenged this claim, arguing that it has helped develop several important projects in the country, including the US$660 million Chinese-built Busanga Hydropower Station (Nyabiage, 2021a).
While Beijing immediately expressed concern over the implications of this review process, US commentators rejoiced. Taking to Twitter to ironically applaud the Congolese government’s decision, John Peter Pham, a former US ambassador and fellow at the Atlantic Council, quipped “[I] completely agree, [your] Excellency. This is why non-transparent agreements that swap real mineral resources for inferior or non-existent infrastructure are not in the interests of society even if they benefit those who signed the contracts.” A mini-Twitter feud ensued when Zhu Jing, China’s ambassador to the DRC, retorted with a warning that the Congo “must not become the battleground for great powers”, underlining the Chinese conviction that “no one has the right to use the country, a sovereign and independent state, to satisfy its own interests” (Ibid).
Though not directly affiliated with the US government, Pham’s words offer an accurate reflection of the White House’s current position on increased Chinese involvement in African industry. Over the past two decades, the US has become increasingly cautious of Chinese activity in African states like the Congo, where China poses both an economic and security threat to American interests (Conteh-Morgan, 2018). A number of US strategic analysts perceive China’s ‘win-win’ partnership proposition as a ploy to establish market dominance, and have been monitoring developments closely so as to better respond to perceived threats. When China launched the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, the US coined AFRICOM in response (Ibid). Aligned with international organizations like the IMF, the US has encouraged nations like the Congo to weaken or diversify economic ties with China, as well as lessen its own dependence on Sinocentric supply chains. The DRC received US$1.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund provided that it review its mining contracts with China (Nyabiage, 2021a).
The Bandung Spirit
Beijing famously operates in an opaque style, often asserting that political motives attributed to its foreign investment are baseless. As such the true root of Chinese motives for foreign involvement will be difficult to ascertain. But if the Chinese government is to any extent guided by an interest in helping developing nations increase their political and economic leverage, there should be no valid incentive for the US to oppose its foreign interventions. If China wants to strengthen its connection to countries like the Congo unhampered, it should focus on reviving historical commitments to supporting developing countries in their processes of economic and political determination.
A classic diplomatic strategy involves harking back to historical ties and networks, especially those built during periods of a similar nature, for example the Cold War. In so doing, China would not be clutching at straws. Beijing could justify its foreign intervention by invoking the principles iterated at the 1955 Bandung Conference, where representatives from governments of Asian and African nations gathered to discuss the issue of the Third World in the Cold War. From here emerged the concept of the “Bandung Spirit”, which involved principles of respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic development. While Chinese participation at the conference was initially considered a wild card, Premier Zhou Enlai’s delegation surprised the audience by presenting a supportive front, highlighting its objective “to expand the united front for peace, to promote the national independence movement, to create conditions for the establishment and enhancement of relations between China and other Asian and African countries” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2014). In restating its commitment to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence with neighbouring countries, China successfully established common ground and avoided disputes, targeting colonialism as a common enemy and reaffirming principles of non-interference (Ibid).
While Chinese participation in Cold War proxy conflicts was limited, historical ties still play an important role in collective memory, and their value should not be underestimated. Beijing’s rationale for involvement in the Congolese war was arguably less based on national interests, and more linked to the Bandung objective of contributing to an “emerging socialist world economy”, establishing peace and resisting the dominance of US’ capitalist and imperialist models (Meyskens, 2020). If today China is not, as critics would have it, aiming to replace the US-centric system with a Chinese equivalent but instead attempting to develop a more symmetrical, multi-polar world order, it would do well to emphasize these historical connections with emerging powers such as the Congo. This would forge a degree of trust and therefore enable China to build stronger and more durable partnerships.
In examining great power rivalries, the comparison of historical and contemporary proxy conflicts can offer valuable insight on the interests and future developments of opposed blocs. Countries like the DRC have already undergone decades of external manipulation in the name of Cold War conflict, and in the name of globalisation are once again contesting the overshadowing of their national sovereignty by foreign powers. China, by relying on its history of engagement with the Congo and other ‘Third World’ countries on an equal basis, may be able to deflect criticisms of gaining undue influence or harbouring secret political motives. However, in order to genuinely revive this ‘Bandung Spirit’, greater transparency in its dealings with these countries, especially in the negotiation of fair and ethical contracts, will be necessary. The alternative is that these countries become little more than pawns, embroiled in an inter-continental spat.
Conteh-Morgan, E. (2018). The United States and China: Strategic Rivalry in Africa. Insight Turkey, 20(1), 39–52. https://doi.org/10.25253/99.2018201.03
Meyskens, C. (2020, September 9). There Never Was a Cold War China. Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/there-never-was-cold-war-china
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China. (2014). The Asian-African Conference. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ziliao_665539/3602_665543/3604_665547/t18044.shtml
Nyabiage, J. (2021a, May 22). China’s cobalt mines in spotlight as DRC seeks to renegotiate deals. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3134430/chinas-cobalt-mines-spotlight-drc-seeks-renegotiate-deals?module=inline&pgtype=article
Nyabiage, J. (2021b, September 25). China, the US and a Twitter tit-for-tat over Congo cobalt contracts. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3150089/china-us-and-twitter-tit-tat-over-congo-cobalt-contracts
Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute United States Department of State. (2021). The Congo, Decolonization, and the Cold War, 1960–1965. Office of the Historian. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/congo-decolonization
Phillips, S. (2008). Forming America’s Cold War China Policy. Diplomatic History, 32(5), 995–999. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2008.00740.x
Pollard, C. G. A. J. (2021, May 24). DR Congo to renegotiate cobalt mine contracts with China and others. Asia Financial. https://www.asiafinancial.com/dr-congo-to-renegotiate-cobalt-mine-contracts-with-china-and-others
Tierney, D. (2021, May 27). The Future of Sino-U.S. Proxy War. Texas National Security Review. https://tnsr.org/2021/03/the-future-of-sino-u-s-proxy-war/
Turner, D. T. (2007). The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality. Zed Books.
Weissman, S. (2014, June 16). What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu. Foreign Affairs. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24483553?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Zhou, L. (2021, October 2). ‘If we fight, we both lose’: Chinese ambassador to the US says ‘smoother’ road ahead is a priority. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3150987/if-we-fight-we-both-lose-chinese-ambassador-us-says-smoother?module=top_picks&pgtype=article
 According to Dominic Tierney (2021), indirect (ie unarmed) foreign intervention in civil conflicts can be divided into two types: proxy wars occur when the beneficiary of foreign assistance is a non-state actor, and capacity building when the beneficiary is a state actor.
 See graph charting the use of the word in Chinese-language texts from 1949 to present day: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%E5%86%B7%E6%88%98&year_start=1949&year_end=2019&corpus=34&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2C%E5%86%B7%E6%88%98%3B%2Cc0