While the world has been focused on the activities of Russia’s Wagner private military contractors (PMC) in Africa, another PMC group has been quietly expanding its presence across the continent. China’s government has been increasingly using PMCs to protect its investments and interests in Africa, as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s BRI is a global development strategy that aims to connect Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond through a network of infrastructure projects, trade agreements and cultural exchanges. China has been cooperating with African countries on various sectors, such as energy, mining, construction, agriculture and telecommunications. As of 2018, more than 200,000 Chinese workers have moved to Africa in search of BRI work opportunities, bringing the total number of Chinese immigrants to more than 1 million. In addition, as of 2017, more than 10,000 Chinese companies operated on the continent.
However, China’s growing involvement in Africa also comes with significant challenges and risks. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences notes that 84% of Chinese investments are in countries with medium and high risk levels. The problems of terrorism, political instability and piracy are only increasing on the African continent. China’s interests in implementing projects in Africa are therefore under constant threat. The Chinese government realized that economic cooperation alone will not get you far. The desire to expand its own influence led Beijing to the need to somehow strengthen its security on the continent.
Although, China has also been reluctant to deploy its armed forces abroad, due to its historical principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs, and its concerns about its image and new accusations of “neo-colonialism” from Western countries. Therefore, it has decided to rely on Chinese security companies, which are essentially private military contractors, to provide security for its projects, citizens and diplomats in Africa.
To begin with, we must differentiate between a private security company (PSC) and a private military company (PMC), to use common terms. A PSC provides passive security services, such as access control and protection against theft and violence. A PMC also offers services such as advice and training to local forces, intelligence gathering, rescue and, on occasion, combat missions. However, the difference is blurred when a PSC employs preventive armament or offers security training. In this article, PMC, PSC, and mercenaries are used interchangeably.
Chinese private security companies have found a profitable niche market in Africa: guarding Chinese executives and construction sites. They’re also securing Chinese vessels at sea against piracy. The growing presence of Chinese private security companies in Africa comes against the backdrop of a global security architecture that’s in transition. These changes reflect the US moving away from being the world’s sheriff to its offshore security balancer.
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 private security companies (PSCs) in Africa are not fully “private”. They are accredited by the government and mostly controlled by the state. They also consist mainly of veterans of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA). These PSCs provide security and protection for China’s projects, citizens and diplomats in Africa, as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, they also avoid attracting more attention and comparison with the Russian PMC Wagner or the American Blackwater, by working exclusively at Chinese facilities and not interfering in the internal politics of the African countries.
The growth of Chinese private security companies comes as Beijing increases its investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa. China is also investing in mining projects across the continent. However, in nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, ongoing political unrest means government security services are wanting. China’s reliance on these countries for resources explains why it’s become more anxious about security in Africa.
With thousands of Chinese working in Africa since Xi’s infrastructure-building push began in 2013, their security and the protection of assets like mines and natural gas projects — as well as railways and shipping routes — have become a key concern for Beijing, said Jasmine Opperman, an independent security consultant based in South Africa.
Chinese workers in Africa also are increasingly targeted by criminal gangs for kidnapping. All these threats have led to a rise in the number of private military companies (PMCs) or private security companies (PSCs) operating on the continent.
Thus, China has created new paramilitary structures that will not be pressured from abroad, that the government trusts to carry out its tasks, and that create jobs for military veterans who have not found a place in civilian life and are dissatisfied with the usual benefits from the government.
The Chinese government is, consequently, increasingly relying on Chinese security firms as part of its security mix. There are 5,000 security firms registered in China, employing 4.3 million ex-PLA and People’s Armed Police. Twenty of these are licensed to operate overseas and report that they employ 3,200 individual contractors, more than the size of PLA peacekeeping deployments, which number around 2,500 troops.
Chinese security companies operate in an increasing number of African countries where Beijing projects are being implemented. However, due to the confidentiality of information, it is not possible to calculate the exact number of Chinese “mercenaries” on the territory of the African continent. Security companies in China try not to advertise their activities and hide most information about themselves to prevent the leakage of government information.
Employees of most Chinese security firms are prohibited from carrying weapons both domestically and abroad, forcing them to cooperate with local companies or security forces to whom they provide additional compensation, training, technology, intelligence and equipment. Chinese security companies work with local military forces on the ground, and in some cases accompany them on missions to ensure the safety of workers in mines and oil plants.
In addition to organizing the protection of Chinese enterprises, infrastructure and logistics routes, Chinese security companies are also engaged in: reconnaissance, training of hired African “mercenaries”, consulting services on logistics organization, security of high-ranking officials and even embassies abroad, as well as the fight against piracy.
Typically, Chinese law prohibits its citizens from carrying weapons, both on and off its territory. With a few exceptions. The idea is to prevent Chinese PSCs from becoming PMCs that operate outside government control and end up becoming regional players in their own right, like Executive Outcomes at the time. Or that these companies see themselves as an extension of the state like Wagner.
Some of the most prominent Chinese security companies in Africa are: DeWe Security Service, Huaxin Zhongan and Shanghai Zhongwei. These three companies are authorized to carry and use weapons abroad, and have obtained licenses from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. They offer a range of services, such as sea and land escort, direct protection of Chinese enterprises, high-ranking officials and even embassies abroad, as well as the fight against piracy. Access to weapons and authorization to use force makes the services of these three companies highly sought after in the Gulf of Guinea and Aden, where the risk of pirate attacks on merchant fleets is high.
Chinese companies operate in some of the most problematic areas of Africa : DRC, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, etc. At the same time, the PRC seeks to maintain an inconspicuous military presence on the continent and at all costs avoid creating the image of a “new colonial power . ” Private security companies help both fill the security gap and obscure their eyes with their partially private status and work primarily with Chinese companies.
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.
In Sudan and South Sudan, VSS Security Group and DeWe Security Service work with local military forces on the ground, and in some cases accompany them on missions to ensure the safety of workers in mines and oil plants.
Chinese security companies VSS Security Group, DeWe Security Service, Frontier Services Group, Shandong Huawei Security Group and China Security and Technology Group, in addition to organizing the protection of Chinese enterprises, infrastructure and logistics routes, are also engaged in: reconnaissance, training of hired African “mercenaries”, consulting services on logistics organization, security of high-ranking officials.
Zhongjun Junhong Security Service, China Overseas Security Group and Huaxin Zhong An Security Group were accredited not only by the Chinese government, but also by the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers . This association, based in Switzerland, sets internationally recognized standards to ensure compliance with international legal norms in the field of the use of force.
Hua Xin Zhong An (HXZA) is one of the first Chinese PSCs to provide armed guards to Chinese ships plying the African coast. It employs foreign consultants and has shown itself capable of implementing internationally recognized standards (ISO 28000). Haiwei is the other Chinese security giant, with numerous quality certifications, providing security for Chinese logistics and construction companies in several African countries, from Tanzania to Ethiopia. Both are members of ICOCA.
The main customers of the services of Chinese “private” security companies are: Chinese government agencies in Africa, state-owned enterprises, Chinese transport, logistics and oil and gas companies.
Given the current trends of Chinese economic expansion in Africa and the wide range of threats on the continent, the presence of Chinese security firms can only be expected to grow over the next decade .
The use of Chinese security companies in Africa has raised some questions and concerns, both within and outside China. Some critics argue that China is violating its own principle of non-interference, and that it is using PMCs as a proxy to advance its strategic interests and influence in Africa. Others warn that China’s PMCs could pose a threat to the sovereignty and stability of African countries, and that they could become involved in conflicts or human rights violations. Moreover, some observers point out that China’s PMCs lack regulation, oversight and accountability, and that they operate in a legal gray zone that could create diplomatic and legal problems for China and its partners.
On the other hand, some supporters of China’s PMCs argue that they are providing a valuable service to the Chinese government and companies, and that they are helping to protect the lives and property of Chinese citizens and workers in Africa. They also claim that China’s PMCs are not interfering in the internal affairs of African countries, but rather cooperating with them and respecting their laws and regulations. Furthermore, some proponents of China’s PMCs suggest that they could play a positive role in enhancing the security and stability of Africa, and that they could contribute to the development and peace of the continent.
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.
African countries with Chinese private security contractors
China Overseas Security Group
Beijing DeWe Security Services
Frontier Service Group
Democratic Republic of Congo
China Security and Technology Group
Zhongjun Junhong Security Service
VSS Security Group
Shandong Huawei Security Group
Huaxin Zhong An Security Group
What are the implications of China’s PSCs in Africa for the regional and global security dynamics? Are they a new form of state power projection, or a pragmatic response to the security challenges and risks that China faces in Africa?
China’s private military contractors in Africa are a relatively new phenomenon that deserves more attention and analysis. They reflect China’s growing interests and challenges in Africa, as well as its evolving security strategy and approach. China’s PMCs could have significant implications for the future of China-Africa relations, as well as for the regional and global security dynamics. Whether they are a growing threat or a strategic partner remains to be seen.
Other countries using PMCs in Africa besides Russia and China includes:
- France: France has been using the French Foreign Legion, a military unit composed of foreign volunteers, to fight Islamist terrorism in the Sahel region since 2014. France also employs private security companies, such as Secopex and Amarante, to provide security and training for its projects and personnel in Africa.
- United States: The US has been using PMCs, such as Academi (formerly Blackwater), DynCorp and Triple Canopy, to support its military and diplomatic operations in Africa, especially in Somalia, Libya and Niger. The US also contracts PMCs to train and equip African security forces, such as in Mali, Nigeria and Uganda.
- United Kingdom: The UK has been using PMCs, such as Control Risks, Olive Group and Aegis Defence Services, to provide security and intelligence for its government and corporate clients in Africa, especially in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. The UK also hires PMCs to assist in humanitarian and development projects, such as in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- South Africa: South Africa has been using PMCs, such as Executive Outcomes, Sandline International and Erinys, to provide military and security services for various African governments and rebel groups, such as in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Sudan. South Africa also exports PMCs to other regions, such as the Middle East and Central Asia.
These are some of the examples of other countries using PMCs in Africa. However, the exact number and scope of PMCs in Africa are hard to determine, due to the lack of transparency and regulation of the industry. PMCs operate in a legal gray zone, and often face accusations of human rights violations, corruption and interference in the internal affairs of African countries.