2013-03-07 by Richard Weitz
In the past decade, the PLA has increasingly participated in multilateral peacekeeping operations in Africa.
Since 2000—when China deployed fewer than 100 peacekeepers—there has been nearly a twenty-fold increase in troops-on-the-ground.
In recent years, China has provided more troops, police, and observer teams to UN peacekeeping missions than Great Britain, Russia, and the United States.
The United States pays a higher proportion of UN peacekeeping costs in Africa than does China, but has many fewer personnel assigned to Africa.
As of March 2012, China contributed 1,904 troops, military police and civilians to UN operations, while the United States deployed only 131 personnel. Nearly 75 percent of China’s peacekeeping forces are concentrated in Africa, while only 7 of the 16 UN operations are currently deployed in Africa.
Skeptics of China’s intentions in Africa frequently point to Chinese presence in resource-rich countries and claim that gaining access to resources is the primary motivation for Chinese involvement in UN peacekeeping efforts.
In response, the PRC cites its peacekeeping role in Western Sahara, where China has little interest in trade.
As of April 2012, missions with some PRC presence include Western Sahara (MINURSO), the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), Darfur (UNAMID), Sudan (UNISFA), South Sudan (UNMISS), Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI), and Liberia (UNMIL).
One benefit of the continued deployment and re-deployment of Chinese peacekeeping troops in Africa is the accumulation of operational knowledge through experience-based training: China’s increasing interaction with other militaries has helped teach the PLA about its own strengths and weaknesses in deploying ground forces operationally.
Serving in regional peacekeeping operations (PKO) is one of the few opportunities PLA personnel have to serve in the field.
The PLA is able to cycle more than 2,000 officers and troops through Africa annually since their tours of duty on PKOs are typically six to twelve months long.
Because these forces are drawn from select units, many Chinese officers are deployed to Africa several times during their careers.
As a result, these officers often obtain a high level of tactical and operational knowledge.
They are responsible for nation-building and act as an intermediary for the military elements and civilian law and order.
In recent years, the PLA has increased its number of “blue-berets” on UN peacekeeping missions. These officers have been involved in reforming political, judicial and penal processes, training police, providing electoral assistance, and disarming and rehabilitating former combatants.
By placing PLA officers in highly visible assistance positions, China adds an important diplomatic aspect to its military presence in Africa and also encourages citizen-to-citizen exchanges.
PRC participation in UN peacekeeping operations not only lends credibility to its economic and diplomatic efforts on the continent, but also helps it secure a reputation as a responsible stakeholder among African populations and within the international community.
Furthermore, participation in PKOs downplays international perceptions of China as a military threat.
At the same time, the PRC benefits from responding to African countries that request that the PLA take a more active role. China recognizes that political stability in Africa complements its economic interests, and thus trumps ideological commitments to noninterference in particular situations.
High-level military visits are an important part of China’s security relationship with Africa. More than two dozen African countries have defense attachés in Beijing while China has almost as many defense attaché offices in Africa.
While the PLA has a relatively small presence compared to that of the United States—which, by contrast, has an entire African Command (AFRICOM) for Africa—the PRC is rapidly increasing its military presence.
The PRC has strengthened its military-to-military cooperation with African states—notably with its assistance in counter-piracy operations, anti-drug smuggling training, and peacekeeping operations.
These long-term military commitments—coupled with Chinese loans and aid for Africa—give the PRC significant influence on the continent.
High-level visits between Chinese and African military officers foster open and meaningful relations between the respective militaries. Between 2001 and 2006, senior PLA officers visited Africa more than 30 times.
The PLA Navy has been engaged in anti-piracy operations and involved in the protection of Chinese merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia—in the Gulf of Aden—for quite some time.
This operation accounts for the largest Chinese military presence in Africa and is China’s most visible military activity associated with the continent; the Chinese supplied three ships in 2009 to contribute to the operation.
Pirates routinely threaten Sino-African trade by hampering shipments of goods in the region. In response, China has invested in maritime security and has invited the South African Navy to assist China. As Sino-African trade continues to grow, more Chinese ships may engage in international maritime security operations.
In December 2011 the Republic of Seychelles invited China to set up a military base to enhance anti-piracy measures along the eastern coast of Africa—an indicator of growing Chinese military influence. The Seychelles government cited Chinese interests in the region and the PLAN’s experience in anti-piracy operations as reasons to engage with the Chinese; moreover, a 2004 military cooperation agreement between the two countries enabled about 50 Seychelles soldiers to train in China. A naval base in Seychelles not only would boost China’s prestige, but also would provide the PLAN a platform from which to train and conduct operations, and augment the PLA’s presence in the Indian Ocean.
The PRC has sold military technologies in Africa and has improved the security capabilities of African militaries for some time.
Between 1955 and 1977, China sold $142 million worth of military equipment to Africa. From 1996 to 2003, China was responsible for about ten percent of the conventional arms trade in Africa.
The Sino-African arms trade has continued to grow, with seventeen percent of China’s $2.1 billion arms sales going to African countries in 2005. From 2006 to 2010, the PRC was the largest supplier of major conventional arms to sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), accounting for 25 percent of arms exports to the region.
As of August 2011, the PRC government has sold armaments and military equipment to 23 out of 57 African countries. The PRC also sends military advisers to many of Africa’s resource-rich countries, such as Nigeria and Angola—both of which are major oil-producers. Chinese infrastructure projects supervised by the Chinese Ministry of Defense have included the construction of arms factories in Uganda and Sudan. Chinese military relations with Zimbabwe have spanned several decades.
The PRC’s noninterference policy affects Chinese military strategy, as Beijing rarely holds African governments accountable for any misuse of weapons or technologies; the PRC frequently draws criticism from the international community for its indiscriminate sale of arms on the continent.
Article Five of the amended set of Regulations on Export Control of Military Items that China follows states: “military-products export should proceed under the following principles: being useful to the self-defense capabilities of the recipient country; being not harmful to the peace, security, and stability of the relevant region or the world; and staying hands off the recipient country’s internal affairs.”
The first principle does not limit China, since dictators, warlords, and juntas wish to increase their self-defense capabilities as much as anyone else; thus, regimes with poor human rights records have access to weapons under this criterion. The last two principles are somewhat contradictory; the internal stability of Sudan is a perfect example. In this instance, circumventing a UN arms embargo on Darfur by supplying Khartoum with weapons directly arguably harms regional and global “peace, security, and stability.”
In addition to Sudan, Angola, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have purchased weapons from Chinese companies, many of which are state-controlled. Arms sales have helped the PRC gain important African allies in the United Nations. PRC arms sales have also been coupled with oil and other raw resource deals.
Recently, the PRC sold $100 million worth of fighter jets to Sudan, including a dozen supersonic F-7s.
In 2008 and 2009, the PRC sold Sudan $23 million worth of artillery and nearly $11 million worth of tanks and other armored vehicles to complement the $1.8 million worth of firearms they had already sold. The PRC profited from arms deals during the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict; China bypassed UN arms embargos and sold $1 billion worth of arms to both sides during the conflict.
The PRC is a longstanding supporter of Zimbabwe. The Chinese have sold jet fighters, military vehicles, and weapons as well as radio-jamming devices to Robert Mugabe’s regime. Reports indicate that jamming devices are used to “prevent independent [radio] stations from contradicting the state-controlled media.” In 2004, Zimbabwe paid $200 million for twelve fighter jets and 100 military vehicles and, in 2005, it spent $245 million on a dozen K-8 light attack aircraft from China. Furthermore, Zimbabwe purchased six training aircraft for $120 million from the China Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation, which has very close ties to both the PLA and CCP.
Though China’s involvement in the African arms trade is relatively small at the present, the transfer of armaments and military technologies has grown, along with the frequency of peacekeeping operations and the increase in military-to-military relations.
By combining these elements, China secures access to African resources and voting partners in international institutions like the UN.
The PLA’s role in Africa will also likely grow.
Considering that the number of Chinese nationals in Africa is increasing due to Sino-African infrastructure deals. There may be around one million PRC citizens in Africa at any one time.
Providing adequate ground security for Chinese citizens remains a significant challenge to the PLA.
When events in Libya endangered Chinese nationals in the country, the PLA conducted a successful non-combatant evacuation operation of 35,000 PRC citizens in February 2011, setting a precedent as the first time that China sent military assets to a distant part of the world to protect its citizens.
During the Libya operation, four PLAAF IL-76s heavy transport planes used Khartoum, Sudan as a waypoint for refueling on the inbound and outbound legs of the flight—a signal that the Sudanese government is comfortable with complying with Chinese requests.
Yet, In January 2012, the MFA announced that militants in the South Kordofan region abducted 29 Chinese nationals after an attack on a Chinese energy company. Sudanese forces rescued the workers who escaped the attack; however, the International Red Cross ultimately brokered the deal for the release of the captured Chinese workers.
African countries that may have future security issues that threaten PRC economic and diplomatic interests could well see the PLA intervene to rescue Chinese citizens, protect PRC investments, and otherwise assume the gendarmerie functions commonly pursued by other great powers in Africa.