China’s Involvement in African Conflict Zones

China in Africa

The Jamestown Foundation

The National Press Club – Washington, D.C.

20 May 2009

China’s Involvement in African Conflict Zones

David H. Shinn

Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs

The George Washington University

China has three kinds of engagement in African conflict zones. First, China has made positive contributions to peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations and provided de-mining assistance. Second, China has a significant arms trade with Africa, and some of the arms make their way into African conflicts. Third, Chinese nationals are increasingly finding themselves in harm’s way as they become subject to kidnapping or worse.


China began in the early 1990s to assign a small number of personnel to United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa; the numbers increased significantly in 2001 when China sent more than 200 troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2007, a Chinese general for the first time took command of a UN peacekeeping operation—in the Western Sahara. At the end of April, China had more than 1,600 troops, police and observers assigned to six of the seven UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. The largest Chinese units were in Liberia, southern Sudan, Darfur and the DRC. About 75 percent of all Chinese peacekeepers serve in Africa.

China has received widespread praise from African leaders, the UN and the United States for its contributions to peacekeeping in Africa. There are three explanations for China’s involvement in peacekeeping. First, it contributes to peace and security and helps China to project an image that it is supporting the building of a “harmonious society” to balance western influence. Second, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wants to expand its experience in non-combat missions such as peacekeeping. Third, the PLA and Chinese security forces can learn important lessons that may improve their responsiveness, riot-control capabilities, coordination of military emergency command systems and ability to conduct non-combat missions at home.

Anti-Piracy Operations

Some 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships passing through the Gulf of Aden in 2008 came under threat from Somali pirates, who captured a Hong Kong registered tanker. China deployed early in 2009 two destroyers and a supply ship to help combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The ships have about 800 crew and seventy special operations troops. This naval experience gives the PLA Navy valuable experience far from its shores and permits China to project power in an area that is important to its trade. By all accounts, the Chinese naval contingent has performed well and coordinated effectively with other navies in the region.

De-mining Assistance

China’s de-mining assistance has contributed positively to post-conflict situations in Africa. China engaged in mine clearance in Eritrea where it trained 120 Eritrean mine clearance specialists. Since 1998, China has worked with the UN to provide training in land mine disposal and donated equipment to Chad, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola and Eritrea.

Chinese Arms in Conflict Zones

China is hardly alone in transferring arms that eventually are used in African conflicts. Arms from many countries, including the United States have shown up in these conflicts. Although there is no evidence that China has in recent years been transferring arms to African rebel groups, Beijing has actively sold small arms and light weapons (SALW) to African governments.

Some African governments transfer these weapons to rebel groups that either serve their interests in neighboring countries or they transfer them to groups within their own country as Sudan did when it supplied weapons to the Janjaweed in Darfur. Some of the Chinese weapons found in African conflict zones were purchased on the open market by organizations active in African conflict zones.

Between 2000 and 2003, China delivered by value about 13 percent of all arms to Sub-Saharan Africa; this percentage increased to almost 18 percent between 2004 and 2007. Transfers of small arms and light weapons are especially hard to track; statistics are suspect and probably understate the amounts for all countries. Since 2000, China delivered SALW to at least twenty-seven of Africa’s fifty-three countries. Three of the largest recipients—Sudan, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire—have experienced significant internal conflict.

China sold a large quantity of weapons to both Ethiopia and Eritrea during their 1998-2000 war. Ethiopia purchased ammunition, light mortars, AK-47s and vehicles. The ammunition was one-third the cost of its Russian equivalent and just as good. Chinese mortars were light and easily deployed by two soldiers in rugged terrain making them more appropriate than their American counterparts. Because its small arms and ammunition are relatively inexpensive, China is becoming the provider of choice for the generic version of the AK-47.

Chinese arms have appeared frequently in the eastern Congo and Rwanda. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Rwandan army, Hutu militias and the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) used Chinese weapons, among others. The Rwandan government reportedly purchased them from independent arms dealers. Those used by the RPF came from Ugandan government stocks. The Hutu militias obtained them from stocks sold initially to the DRC and Seychelles. Two rebel groups in the DRC also used Chinese weapons. SIPRI reported that the Mai-Mai organization obtained them from several neighboring countries while Rwanda provided those used by one faction of the Congolese Rally for Democracy. In one analysis of weapons collected in Ituri District of the DRC, 17 percent were of Chinese origin. China was Zimbabwe’s primary supplier of arms when it sent troops to the DRC in 1998 in support of Laurent Kabila. The China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation sold numerous arms to the Taylor regime in Liberia between 2001 and 2003.

China’s most controversial military sales concern Sudan where there have been two major conflicts—the North-South civil war and the crisis in Darfur. China provided up to 90 percent of the SALW delivered to Sudan between 2004 and 2006. It also delivered more sophisticated equipment. In terms of all armament deliveries to Sudan, however, China said it is providing only 8 percent of the total. The government of Sudan reportedly transferred some of these weapons to the Janjaweed militia in contravention of the UN arms embargo. China also joined other countries in helping Sudan to develop its own weapons manufacturing capacity. Most ammunition used by all parties in Darfur is manufactured by Sudan or China.

It is important to reiterate, however, that arms from many nations are in use in African conflict zones and by total dollar value China is not the leading arms merchant to Africa. It may, however, be the largest provider of SALW to Africa.

Attacks on Chinese

Chinese nationals and installations increasingly find themselves in harm’s way as their presence grows, especially in or near conflict zones. In recent years, the Chinese have generally been willing to take greater risks than western companies are willing to take as they pursue commercial interests.

The most serious incident occurred in 2007 in the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region in southeastern Ethiopia. A rebel force attacked a Chinese base camp used for gas exploration resulting in the death of nine Chinese and the brief kidnapping of a number of others.

China experienced a similar situation at an oil exploration facility near Darfur region in Sudan. A rebel group briefly overran the operation in 2007 and several months later attacked a nearby facility operated by the Great Wall Drilling Company. In 2008, a third attack resulted in the kidnapping of nine Chinese employees of the China National Petroleum Corporation. The rebel group killed four of them; four others were rescued and one remains missing.

A dissident group in the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria has warned all foreigners, including Chinese, to stay out of the region. In recent years, more than a dozen Chinese nationals from a variety of Chinese companies have been kidnapped in the region and eventually released. It is generally believed that China paid a ransom for their release. Tuareg rebels in Niger kidnapped and released several days later a Chinese uranium executive in 2007 as a warning to China for disregarding the environment and signing an unacceptable agreement with the Niger government.

A number of private Chinese business representatives have also been killed as victims of criminal activity as they conduct their business in high crime areas. Just as westerners have experienced for decades, Chinese nationals are beginning to pay a high price for their risk taking in commercial ventures in or near conflict areas.