Film: Wolf Warrior 2 image of China military muscle in Africa

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Is the hugely successful film Wolf Warrior 2 a metaphor for China’s growing presence in Africa – and perhaps beyond? It’s an action thriller featuring a Rambo-like Chinese hero called Leng Feng.

He takes on the bad guys, first at home and then in Africa, where he foils Somali pirates, rebels and mercenaries trying to overthrow a government. In passing he tackles a deadly (fictitious) infectious disease called Lamanla.

Like his American inspiration, Feng is something of a maverick who has been discharged from the Chinese army and who pushes official limits.

Nonetheless he is ultimately a great patriot (otherwise, presumably, the Chinese embassy in Pretoria wouldn’t be hosting the South African premiere next week).

Wolf Warrior 2 is being seen as a symbol of China’s growing security presence in Africa where, like Feng, it is also fighting Somali pirates, rebels, terrorists and other enemies of the established order – not to mention Ebola.

The film is being interpreted by some as a cinematic expression of China’s growing assertiveness on the world stage under President Xi Jinping.

He told the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress last month, for example, that it was time for his nation to become ‘a mighty force’ that took a greater lead on the world stage on political, economic, military and environmental issues.

Africa, some Chinese scholars believe, is being used by Beijing as a zone of experimentation for this more assertive global role.

This is in contrast to China’s traditional principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, as Sinologist Chris Alden noted at the launch of his book China and Africa: Building Peace and Security Cooperation on the Continent at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

In the book, Alden – a senior research fellow at SAIIA and professor in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science – and his fellow authors describe how China’s security presence in Africa has been growing.

This shift from its erstwhile hands-off attitude has brought Beijing closer to the approach of Western powers which have been involved far longer in African security.

But it also caused some disquiet and suspicion among those Western powers about China’s designs on the continent, Alden said.

Nevertheless, China and Western powers are also learning to cohabit in the security domain, most notably in Djibouti where China, the US, Japan and European militaries are living cheek by jowl in a very small space. This could also be a pilot study for security cooperation elsewhere.

Alden explained how China’s rapidly expanding economic involvement in Africa over the past two decades had exposed it to the vagaries of African politics, forcing it to step up its meagre security presence to protect its businesses and its citizens. China began increasing its military footprint on African soil in 1998, with a growing endorsement of and presence in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

The book observes how Chinese investment has been drawn to war-torn, unstable or fragile states like Sudan, which Western companies have mostly shunned; or to countries like Angola which have rejected Western donor conditionalities. But this has often confronted China with unusual risks.

Sudan and Darfur, where China has considerable oil investments, became a turning point in China’s security approach in the early 2000s, Alden said.

Analysis by Peter Fabricius, Institute of Security Studies [ISS]