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China’s (Other) Presence in Africa

When it comes to the use of private military contractors (PMCs) in Africa, often first thoughts, and/or criticisms, turn to the use of the Wagner Group to promote, or protect, the interests of the Russian government. The presence, and activities, of Russian private military personnel, have been well recorded in Libya, as well as in the Central African Republic. Nevertheless, a new player is emerging on the scene that deserves more attention. Specifically, it is Beijing rapidly increasing the use of PMCs in Africa.

However, one has to ask why China often receives limited coverage regarding the use of their PMCs in Africa? Western think tanks, as well as analysts often focus on the use of soft power by Beijing when it refers to relations with its African partners. So which Chinese companies are doing business in Africa? A better question is what type of Chinese interests in Africa have to be protected?

Unsurprisingly, most Chinese PMC activity is in support of the Belt and Road Initiative. For example, the DeWei Security Group has been active in Kenya training security forces on the ground on how to defend Chinese interests. Another country where the group is known to operate is in South Sudan where the company protects China’s stake in the very profitable oil industry. The firm played a role in the 2012 rescue by the Sudanese Armed Forces of 29 kidnapped workers in South Kordofan. The prestige of the company began to rise in 2016 when it was contracted to protect an LNG facility for China’s POLY-GCL Petroleum Group Holdings Limited in Ethiopia. That was reported to be the largest contract ever won by a Chinese PMC.

It would be wrong to say that the U.S. has not followed these important developments. For example, earlier this spring, the Jamestown Foundation, a well-known research center in Washington, released a brief highlighting the activities of the known operations in Africa by Chinese PSCs.

Some of the key highlights are: Shandong Huawei Security Group has been working in conjunction with the MSS Security Group in Australia on projects throughout Africa; China Overseas Security Group has ongoing projects in Africa specifically in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Frontier Services Group which is a project of Erik Prince (the founder of the infamous Blackwater) has an interest in East Africa. Its presence in Mozambique can be described as murky at best. It left a logistics contract with a Mozambique oil and gas firm but remains to provide security. The company which is in the midst of expanding its operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo also maintains headquarters in both Nairobi, Kenya, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

This past June, Dr. Christopher Spearin, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, published a thorough analysis of this development in PRISM. In his analysis, Dr. Spearin argues that the United States should engage China on its use of private military contractors because of two main reasons. Firstly, there is great potential for change in the orientation of Chinese private military contractors in Africa. So far these companies “lack substantial capabilities to inflict lethal violence,” but this will likely change in the near future. Finally, the U.S. should engage China now, to dissuade its leadership from “mimicking the route taken by Russia in its usage of private military contractors,” meaning Wagner.

After conducting research one may (or should) ask where does one expect these Chinese private military contractors to set up operations next? One possibility could be Nigeria. After a high profile incident in late 2019 when three Chinese miners were killed and others were taken into custody for illegal mining, it is logical to assume that Beijing will want to protect its interests, both its investments and its citizens in Nigeria. The government of Nigeria has a poor record of dealing with insurgent activities in several areas of the country as well as criminal activity. Knowing this could telegraph any future move by Beijing through its proxies.

It is worth noting that there are issues that remain murky about these institutions, particularly whether these firms are acting directly on behalf of the party bosses in Beijing. Both African governments and western analysts have been debating this issue for several years and have not arrived at a conclusion.

In any case, there is an expectation that the demand for Chinese PSCs throughout Africa will actually increase as the Chinese government continues to expand its presence on the continent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.