Originally Published The Diplomat Published on May 28, 2024

Beijing’s motivations concerning the conflict resolution in Niger include a mix of economic, political and reputational drivers.

Deconstructing China’s Interest in the Niger-Benin Rapprochement

Niger’s relations with its neighbor Benin have been strained since a July 2023 coup in Niger, followed by border closures. Despite incurring huge losses, landlocked Niger was reluctant to open its border with Benin, citing security reasons. Last month, China sent foreign and energy ministry officials, along with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) executives, to resolve the dispute between the two nations.

After China’s successful mediation, Niger has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Benin and open up the border. Consequently, Benin also agreed to allow Niger to dispatch oil shipments using Benin’s port. While China is set to economically benefit from the deal, its successful mediation also marks Beijing’s emergence as a peacemaker in Africa.

Niger-Benin Oil Pipeline Row

In March 2024, the Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) completed an almost 2,000-kilometer pipeline from Agadem in eastern Niger to Seme-Kpodj of Benin, close to Cotonou port on the Atlantic coast.

Started in September 2019, the pipeline was expected to be operational by 2021. However, the project was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other instabilities in the region. The July coup in Niger and consequent sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), further complicated the situation, and project costs soared well above an estimated $5 billion. ECOWAS sanctions prompted Niger to leave the community and join Mali and Burkina Faso to form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), another regional grouping of three junta-ruled countries of West Africa.

In December 2023, Benin unilaterally opened its border for Niger on humanitarian grounds. This was followed by the partial removal of sanctions by ECOWAS in February 2024 on the same grounds. However, Niger decided not to open its border, preventing Beninese goods and people from entering Niger. Although Niger cited security concerns, it was principally because of the Benin government’s open condemnation and public protests against the coup. The junta in Niger was probably scared that France or ECOWAS would use the Benin border and attempt to reinstall the earlier government.

Ironically, the survival of the junta government in Niger depends on its relationship with Benin. Before the coup, the Benin corridor, which connected the capital of Niger, Niamey, with the Cotonou port, handled 80 percent of Niger’s freight. Both the International Monetary Fund(IMF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have predicted an 11 percent or more growth rate for Niger in 2024, based on its oil exports. However, to export, Niger needed to make peace with Benin.

Deconstructing Chinese Interest in a Deal 

While China’s intervention in this standoff is primarily driven by its economic interests, it also has vital political motivations in Niger and the broader Sahel region. Besides, China also aims to build a positive international image as a successful mediator. This is reflected well in its mediation efforts in the Niger-Benin standoff.

CNPC alone has invested more than $4.6 billion in Niger’s petroleum industry. With an investment of over $5 million, the pipeline project was the biggest investment CNPC has made in a cross-border crude oil pipeline. Currently, Niger produces 20,000 barrels per day (bpd). However, the pipeline can transport 90,000 bpd immediately, and China wants to export all of it. With the potential of carrying 110,000 bpd, the pipeline could transform the economy of Niger.

In addition to crude oil, Niger also boasts Africa’s highest-grade uranium ore and accounts for about 5 percent of the global production. In 2007, the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) entered a joint venture with the Nigerien government to develop the Azelik uranium mine. However, the project was closed in 2015 due to financial difficulties. In July 2023, China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation, known as SinoU, agreed to restart the project. With an estimated 15,600 tons of uranium resources, the mine is expected to produce 700 tons annually, benefiting China’s nuclear industry.

China also gave the junta government of Niger a loan of $400 million to help the country pay off its debt accumulated since the military takeover. The interest rate of the loan is 7 percent, which Niger agreed to pay back with the export of an equivalent amount of oil within a year.

China also conducts significant trade with Benin, more than hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and, consequently, is keen to resolve the standoff. This successful mediation was pivotal for China to protect its economic and resource interests in the region.

Niger is also important for China to increase its political clout. Six years ago, the United States invested around $110 million in constructing two drone sites in Niger: Niamey and Agadez. The U.S. spends another $30 million annually to maintain these two sites. Yet, the junta government that came into power in July 2023 asked the U.S. to withdraw its troops and dismantle its bases. Earlier in December 2023, France was forced to remove 1,500 military personnel from Niger. Although Russian military personnel have started to arrive in Niger, China senses a void and may want to carve out some diplomatic space necessary to protect its commercial interests.

Finally, when traditional partners failed to provide security in Niger, the success of China’s mediation efforts would undoubtedly increase the country’s international profile and reputation as a sincere security partner, at least in Africa. Using expressions such as “community with a shared future” in its relations with African countries would establish China’s claim to normative commitment and to values of stability, peace, and prosperity.

Conclusion

With China’s diplomatic stance and economic leverage over both sides, the Niger-Benin rapprochement was crucial for Beijing to safeguard its economic interests. However, this successful mediation has also raised Beijing’s diplomatic profile in Africa. In this regard, China’s lack of historical baggage in Africa has helped it earn an image of being a neutral mediator.

Following the agreement, Benin agreed to allow Niger to export crude oil using its port. Undoubtedly, this successful mediation has strengthened China’s role as a peacemaker, and it will improve China’s image among Africans. However, most importantly, it signals a significant departure from Beijing’s usual politics of avoiding conflicts or conflict mediation.

China’s motivations concerning the conflict resolution in Niger involved a mix of economic, political and reputational drivers. Going forward, Beijing will remain invested in Africa’s security framework due to its Belt and Road ventures, energy dependency, and trade relationships. However, China’s engagement in dispute resolution also clearly reflects its aspiration to be a global security provider. Therefore, this deal provides some crucial insights concerning its motivation and will be helpful in predicting China’s future course of action in other countries where it has similar interests.


This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.

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Author

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya is an Associate Fellow at ORF where he works on geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in the changing global order. He has a ...

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