Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has placed tens of thousands of workers in Africa to build Chinese-financed BRI infrastructure projects across the continent.
Now, in an effort to protect its workers, China is turning to private military contractors (PMCs).
Chinese PMCs first appeared in Africa in 2010 to protect Chinese ships from Somali pirates. Since then, Chinese security contractors have become a small but growing presence. At least nine Chinese security companies operate in Sub-Saharan Africa, where dozens of BRI projects produce more than $50 billion in revenue each year for Chinese state-owned companies, according to analyst Paul Nantulya of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS).
China’s PMCs operate in a legal gray area. While the United Nations and the African Union have banned the use of mercenaries, the restrictions say nothing about PMCs. Some experts, such as Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council, argue there is no difference between the two groups.
“‘Private military company’ is a term of art that is code for mercenary,” McFate, author of “The Modern Mercenary,” told CNBC.
Beijing DeWe Security Service has about 2,000 security contractors in Kenya to protect the Chinese-built $3.6 billion Standard Gauge Railway between Mombasa and Naivasha. The same company protects the $4 billion Chinese-backed natural gas project shared with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Other companies protect Chinese-owned mines in South Africa, guard BRI projects in Somalia, and protect transportation corridors in the Gulf of Guinea and the Gulf of Aden.
Chinese law prohibits PMC contractors from carrying weapons at home. Abroad, PMCs must abide by the laws of the countries where they are working. But companies often find ways around restrictions. In South Africa, which tightly regulates foreign PMCs, Chinese companies operate through specially created local subsidiaries. In less restrictive countries, such as Kenya, contractors work directly with local security companies, providing the companies with extra income, equipment and intelligence.
In Sudan and South Sudan, where China is heavily invested in oil production and restrictions on PMCs are minimal, Chinese contractors have been directly involved in military operations. Chinese contractors helped those nations’ militaries rescue Chinese nationals from kidnappings and when they have been threatened by instability.
When 300 Chinese oil workers were trapped between rival factions in South Sudan in 2016, DeWe contractors were dispatched to rescue them. Chinese peacekeepers, who could have done the job, stayed in their barracks.
But China’s PMC approach has had its problems.
“China’s security contractors have caused their fair share of trouble in working around weapons restrictions,” Nantulya wrote in an analysis published by the ACSS.
In Zambia, where relations with Chinese nationals can be tense, officials arrested Chinese citizens in 2018 for illegally training local security forces in military tactics. The trainees were disguised as members of the Zambia Wildlife Authority to avoid government scrutiny. In Zimbabwe, authorities jailed Chinese security forces for shooting the son of a member of Parliament — after they had been ordered to be deported but remained in the country illegally.
Elsewhere, officials have arrested Chinese contractors for possessing military grade gear and for having a system to intercept communications.
At this point, China’s PMCs remain focused on protecting BRI projects and commercial investments. That’s a different approach from Africa’s other major foreign PMC, Russia’s Wagner Group, which has inserted itself into armed conflicts in countries including the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique.
Unlike Chinese PMCs, which follow China’s investments, Wagner often precedes its affiliated mining companies that extract resources to pay for Wagner’s services. Also, unlike Wagner, which denies any connection to the Russian government, Chinese PMCs must be partly owned by the government.
As coups and internal conflicts disrupt the political and economic stability of some African countries, China could deploy more PMC units to the continent to protect its citizens and investments — even as African civil society groups press governments to place stricter limits on PMC operators.
In Kenya and Zimbabwe, citizens have sued Chinese state-owned companies over their activities. Those lawsuits have also shone a light on the actions of the PMCs providing security for Chinese enterprises in those countries.
“There is an abiding suspicion of foreign security firms within African civil society organizations due to the involvement of foreign mercenaries in Africa’s deadliest civil wars,” Nantulya wrote. “Hence, while China’s security firms are less visible that other external actors, they are viewed in a similarly negative light.”