China’s Plans to Expand Private Security in Africa Could Pose Risks
The killing of nine Chinese nationals in March at a mine in the Central African Republic may prompt China to increase security at its worksites in Africa. If this occurs, it’s likely China will turn to private security companies (PSC), which have a checkered history on the continent.
Experts say China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, which employ tens of thousands of Chinese nationals and represent billions of dollars in infrastructure, could be high-profile targets for attacks by extremist groups.
“In the last decade, China has recognized that sole reliance on the economic development of African countries isn’t enough to protect its workers and projects,” Alessandro Arduino, principal research fellow at the National University of Singapore, wrote recently in The Conversation.
Thirteen years after PSCs were first deployed against pirates, China has added thousands of former soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army, ex-Special Forces members and other former military contractors across Africa, largely to protect high-priced infrastructure projects such as Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway.
Unlike other private military contractors in Africa, Chinese PSCs aren’t actually private — they’re state-owned enterprises that answer to the government in Beijing. The government has licensed 20 PSCs to operate outside the country. That list includes Huaxin Zhong An Security Group, China Security Technology Group and Beijing DeWe Security Service, which has about 2,000 contractors protecting the $4 billion Kenya railway.
The attacks at the Chimbolo mine could result in more Chinese PSCs entering Africa, according to South African security consultant Jasmine Opperman.
“It’s about the protection and expansion of Chinese influence, and because of the volatile security situations, we are seeing [private security] now growing in numbers,” Opperman told the Voice of America recently.
China’s PSCs function on the fringes of international law. The United Nations and African Union have both banned the use of mercenaries without specifically banning private companies that offer military services. Analyst Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council says that distinction is meaningless.
“‘Private military company’ is a term of art that is code for ‘mercenary,’” McFate, author of “The Modern Mercenary,” told CNBC.
Chinese PSCs currently operate in 14 African countries. They are concentrated in East and Southern Africa with others in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Mali. Some countries, such as South Africa, have strict rules governing their behavior. Others, such as Sudan and South Sudan, give the Chinese more latitude in how they operate in their countries — latitude that some experts say can put residents at risk.
Under Chinese law, PSC members are forbidden to carry weapons. That means they often work closely with security companies or local militias when they need to rescue kidnapped Chinese nationals.
“By collaborating with local militias, you’re basically taking sides,” Opperman told the VOA.
In some cases, Chinese PSCs have created new security companies in partnership with residents of their host countries. Then PSC members have gone to work for those companies to skirt China’s no-weapons rule.
“China’s security contractors have caused their fair share of trouble in working around weapons restrictions,” analyst Paul Nantulya of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has written in his own studies of Chinese private security.
Given the instability in some of the countries where it has BRI investments, China may decide to alter the rules governing its PSCs by allowing them to carry weapons, according to Cortney Weinbaum with the Rand Corp. think tank.
Writing in RealClearDefense, Weinbaum cited a Chinese-language article on the site Netease, supporting the idea that China could expand its use of military contractors in Africa.
This expansion could set China up for some of the same problems the Russian Wagner group and similar operators have experienced in Africa, according to Weinbaum. However, in the end, China’s leadership may find that approach necessary.
“As one of the largest international investors in infrastructure projects, China is searching for ways to secure its investments,” she added.