China’s growing influence in Africa extends to arms sales, report says
Amid China’s growing ties with African nations, it has usually been Beijing’s economic influence that has grabbed most of the headlines. But as the war in Ukraine has continued, experts say China has also been expanding its defence and security influence across Africa – a trend that could eat into Russia’s market share.
Aside from exporting weapons to African countries, China has exported private military and security contractors (PMSCs) to protect mining facilities, ports and railways – projects that have been funded through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese PMSCs have been operating in 15 African countries, while Beijing has exported weapons or arms to 17 nations on the continent, according to the RAND Corporation, an American think tank that has produced a new map that tracks Chinese and Russian military influence in Africa.
China slightly lags Russia, whose private military and security contractors have won contracts in 31 African countries. Russia has also exported weapon systems to 14 African countries, according to data from RAND released in late December. Military shipments from China and Russia to African countries have included aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, artillery, armoured vehicles, missiles and ships.
Seven African countries have received both arms and PMSCs from China, compared to 10 from Russia, according to the RAND study. The five countries that received weapons and PMSCs from both China and Russia are Angola, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mali and Sudan.
The study found that each of the 15 nations that have received Chinese PMSCs have also received Russian private security contractors.
“Weapons exports are a means of influence,” said John Parachini, a senior international and defence researcher at RAND. He said China is also motivated to sell weapons for the same reasons as other major arms exporters – to make money – and that such transactions often involve high-level negotiations.
“The senior leaders of an arms-purchasing country are frequently involved in these transactions. Arms exports lead to contact with senior officials that can lead to other diplomatic and commercial interactions,” Parachini said.
The production of weapons systems for export can reduce the marginal cost of production of those systems, which allows a country like China to offer exports with lower unit costs for purchasers.
Parachini said China’s private security companies mainly provide services to Chinese industrial projects operating in a foreign country. Their roles abroad have been quite different from Russian military companies like the Wagner Group that operate as mercenaries for hire, according to Parachini.
According to the RAND study, Russia has engaged in under-the-radar military operations in at least half a dozen countries in Africa over the past five years using a shadowy mercenary force that analysts say is loyal to President Vladimir Putin. Observers say the Wagner Group, a Russian PMSC, is also key to Putin’s ambitions to reimpose Russian influence on a global scale.
“China’s contractors have, thus far, operated primarily unarmed and engaged in defensive security functions rather than military operations,” the authors of the RAND report said, adding that Chinese PMSCs are deployed primarily to protect and secure China’s interests.
The study said that, like Russia, China’s PMSCs have been closely controlled by the central government through China’s public security bureaus, though with very different aims.
“We have not found evidence indicating that Chinese PMSCs conduct violence or are deployed as proxy forces in manners comparable to Russia’s approach,” the researchers said.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia, the United States, France, Germany and China are the largest arms suppliers to Africa. Russia has arms export relationships with African countries that go back to the Soviet era, Parachini said.
He said the US, France and Germany have reputations for producing high-quality defence equipment and have strong relations with certain countries due to historical relationships.
But China is carving out its own segments in the Africa market, with particular weapon systems and drones, for example, Parachini said.
“Like Russia, China promotes its systems as lower cost alternatives to some Western country systems.”
Observers said China could benefit from the disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine and probably take share from Russia’s Africa arms sales market.
Parachini said that countries around the world could become more hesitant to purchase Russian weapons due to potential sanctions, their lack of performance in Ukraine, or concerns over the availability of spare parts for Russian systems.
“China may benefit as a lower cost provider that does not have restrictions on selling systems to countries with questionable human rights records,” he said.
According to the Chinese Loans to Africa Database at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre, between 2000 and 2020, China advanced 27 defence loans to eight African countries worth US$3.5 billion. Most of the money – US$2.1 billion – was advanced to Zambia for the purchase of aircraft, fighter jet trainers, military equipment, and for the building of military and police residential housing.
“China exports military and security services to African countries both to project influence and to protect their interests, investments and citizens,” said Dr Ilaria Carrozza, a senior researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo.
Unlike military donations, such as training programmes, arms exports are typically of a commercial nature, and therefore do not differ dramatically from those of other providers, such as France or the US, except at times in the nature and quantity of what’s exported, Carrozza said.
North Africa imports far more arms – especially sophisticated equipment – than does sub-Saharan Africa, said David Shinn, an expert on China-Africa relations at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Shinn said the US and Russia are the primary suppliers for North Africa, although China is a significant provider of conventional weapons to Algeria and Morocco.
Shinn said from 2017 to 2021, Russia transferred 44 per cent of conventional weapons to all of Africa, compared to the US at 17 per cent, and China at 10 per cent. Russia was the largest provider to sub-Saharan Africa, followed closely by China.
“Chinese exports of conventional weapons to all of Africa peaked in 2016 and have declined significantly since,” Shinn said, adding that the primary sub-Saharan Africa recipients of Chinese conventional weapons since 2010 have been Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan and Cameroon.
“China sells arms to Africa to make a profit and to strengthen relations with African governments and militaries. Private security contractors are not a significant factor in these sales and Chinese security contractors, with rare exception, are not even allowed to carry arms,” Shinn said.