BEIJING • To see China's evolving foreign policy, look to Africa, where a desire to protect economic investment is leading to a revision of the country's hands-off approach to the internal affairs of other nations.
President Xi Jinping, who began a five-day African visit yesterday, is expected to use his trip to showcase China's expanding role as a protector of regional security. China has pledged US$100 million (S$141 million) of military aid for the African Union and deployed frigates to fight piracy off the Somali coast, leading to Beijing considering building its first overseas naval resupply station in Djibouti.
"Such initiatives are a clear departure from Beijing's aversion to military or security intervention in Africa," said Mr Lyle Morris, an associate at the Rand Corp.
"The announcement suggests a rethinking of Chinese priorities on the continent, and marks a recognition that China's participation in conflict resolution will be an unavoidable by-product of increased Chinese engagement."
The new approach to Africa - a hot-spot for Chinese investment - could illustrate how Beijing tries to strike that balance of new security priorities without abandoning a decades-old vow against interfering in other countries.
A Nov 20 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali which left three China Railway executives dead also showed that "China's vast business interests in Africa face an uncertain future if security issues are not tackled", said Mr Shu Yunguo, director of the Centre for African Studies at Shanghai Normal University.
However, Mr Xi is still expected to cast China's security role in Africa as limited and within the framework of global organisations.
"In the long run, the international community and the United Nations should support African countries in increasing their own capacity in keeping peace and stability so that African issues can be addressed in an African way," he told the UN General Assembly in September.
Mr Xi's trip began in Zimbabwe, where he was the most prominent global leader to visit in many years.
President Robert Mugabe, the African Union's current head, is widely shunned by the West but received the Confucius Peace Prize, China's rival to the Nobel, in October.
Mr Xi heads to Johannesburg today, ahead of the two-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation on Friday. Trade and development projects will top the agenda, but talks are also planned on anti-terrorism efforts.
"We cannot have development without security," said Mr Ghulam Asmal, director of international partnerships at South Africa's Department of International Relations.
While China is Africa's biggest trading partner, with two-way flows exceeding US$220 billion last year, the pace of investment has slowed. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has said investment in Africa fell by more than 40 per cent in the first half of this year.
In a piece published yesterday in South Africa's Star newspaper, Mr Xi wrote that he will pursue cooperation on energy, finance, human resources, infrastructure, marine issues and production capacity.
But it is clear China is approaching Africa a little differently now.
Mr David Shinn, who teaches African affairs at George Washington University, said: "It is not reached the point yet where you could say it has abandoned the principle of non-interference, but it... has reached the point of a redefinition of what non-interference means."
BLOOMBERG, XINHUA, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE