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The increasing presence of Chinese arms throughout much of Africa and the Middle East comes at a time when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to revamp its image through international engagement, deploying ever increasing numbers to peacekeeping deployments throughout Africa.
China is now the largest single contributor of personnel to UN peacekeeping, despite only having begun contributing to such operations in 1992. Although China has been a quiet economic presence in Africa for many years, building infrastructure at knock-down prices compared with Western actors, its engagement as a security player is still a work in progress. It is, therefore, an excellent time to examine the growing Chinese role in Africa, contrasting its enthusiasm for peacekeeping with its increasing role as an international arms manufacturer.
From 2010 to 2015, China’s arms trade grew by 143%, making the PRC the world’s third largest exporter of arms. Two-thirds of African countries now make use of arms manufactured by China, from cheap copies of small weapons to complex ocean-going naval vessels.
Chinese weaponry has filled the market niche traditionally occupied by the cheap Soviet weaponry that previously equipped many African nations. With most legacy Soviet surplus equipment now reaching the end of its practical service life, African countries must seek alternative sources for the cheap defence equipment they need to maintain internal security.
Chinese arms manufacturer NORINCO has become a particularly widespread manufacturer, with its arms in use in the majority of sub-Saharan and central African nations.
While some might associate China entirely with knock-offs, its growth as a defence manufacturer has been bolstered in recent years by its forays into more complex arms. The Chinese-Pakistani made K-8 Karakorum jet trainer is now in service with Egypt, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Sudan.
The PRC claims with some pride that K-8s comprise 80% of the jet trainer aircraft in Africa. Along with it being an indigenous development, the K-8 is particularly notable due to the ease with which it can be converted over to a light-attack role for counterinsurgency operations.
In addition to jet aircraft, China has sold offshore patrol vessels and other complex naval vessels to nations, including Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Cameroon. To compliment their sales of advanced arms, China has already built a large maintenance base in Africa with more in development. A naval base in Djibouti will soon be joined by aircraft maintenance and training facilities in Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.
Often considered one of the most advanced and complex areas of defence technology, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development is also an area in which China is making significant strides, with the PRC’s International Aero Development Corporation leading the way.
China’s indigenously developed Wing Loong II is an armed drone not dissimilar to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper and has been sold to Nigeria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. With their plans to manufacture the CH-4 Caihong platform in Saudi Arabia, China appears likely to develop into a serious alternative provider for states looking to purchase UAVs. At the same time, UAVs are allowing China to expand its sales base beyond Africa. Ultimately, China has made clear and confident steps into areas of defence manufacturing it was not previously proficient in, and with global instability continuing apace the PRC is likely to have an increasing market for its products.
While the arms industry has an at best chequered record in terms of ensuring its products do not end up in the wrong hands, China’s exploits in this area have crossed into even murkier areas than usual.
China has been consistently embarrassed by its arms shipments turning up in the hands of militants or dissidents of all colours, and Beijing has at times circumvented the arms embargoes which prevent western arms manufacturers from accessing certain markets. Chinese-made RPGs have been found in the hands of Somali pirates, and some believe Beijing may have supplied the C-801 and C-802A missiles recently fired at US Navy ships by the Houthis off the coast of Yemen.
In Darfur in 2011, a UN team found high-explosive shells in a recently abandoned rebel position. These shells were eventually found to have been manufactured in China and exported to South Sudan immediately prior to the embargo against Darfur.
China responded to accusations of having circumvented the embargo by trying to suppress the findings of the UN, blocking a release by the investigators concerned which pointed a finger squarely at the PRC. It appears that China was willing to sell arms to Sudanese groups which would then move the weapons to Darfur, outmanoeuvring the embargo against Darfur.
Similarly, when Zimbabwe was faced with a fresh round of sanctions in 2005, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe urged his citizens to ‘look east’ to find arms. Shortly afterwards, in 2008, the Chinese delivered 77 tonnes of small-arms to Zimbabwe in a single shipment. Chinese arms have become a stubborn presence in the hands of both state and non-state groups, which is at odds with China’s new public commitment to African peacekeeping.
In 2015, the PRC achieved two significant milestones in its advancement as a peacekeeping power. President Xi Jinping delegated 8,000 Chinese soldiers to the UN’s standby force, totalling one-fifth of the total troops in the force; as well as giving $100 million to the African Union’s standby force, with another $1 billion going to the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
Chinese security forces deployed to Mali in 2013 and a battalion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed to South Sudan in 2014, the latter being China’s first deployment of army personnel to another continent. In late 2016, China announced its intention to deploy an operational helicopter unit to South Sudan, with shipments of the materials required beginning in October of that same year.
The accelerated deployments of Chinese forces to peacekeeping are ironic given the PRC’s historical disdain for UN peacekeeping, which until 1981 it had entirely abstained from voting on. The early twenty-first century has seen China step up to a more robust international role, utilising its military to show the world that it intends to be a responsible global power.
In the words of Shen Dingli, the head of the America studies centre at Fudan University in Shanghai, China views peacekeeping as ‘a chance to lift its international image’, while contributing to the maintenance of security in the developing world.
This is somewhat at odds with China’s less than morally clean arms-trading policies. It might be reasonably suggested then that China merely intends to exert influence on the world stage, and is perhaps not overly concerned as to the nature of this influence.
China’s presence as a security actor is growing, with the PRC willing to both contribute to security by peacekeeping as well as offer other powers the arms with which they can maintain security themselves. China could not realistically be considered a security actor in Africa on a par with the US or France until it is able to launch a moderately successful unilateral intervention itself, and this sort of capability and political intent still appears some way off.
However, in the meantime, China’s presence in Africa is likely to grow, realised through ongoing peacekeeping deployments and the cheap and unscrupulous provision of Chinese arms to African powers. Peacekeeping deployments allow the Chinese Army to gain operational experience and test their organisational structures.
Similarly, when Chinese arms are used by foreign powers, Beijing is able to consider the technical merits of their designs at no risk to their own citizens just as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
China’s engagement with Africa, in terms of arms-sales and peacekeeping, allows it an arena in which to develop as a security actor, gaining both technical and military experience. With conflicts around the Lake Chad basin and Sahel showing no signs of abating, and conflict in other areas of Africa showing signs of resurgence, the market for Chinese arms is most certainly going to remain open.
Intern in the Military Sciences research group at RUSI
Author can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org