China Comes to Africa
By Wendell Minnick
Asia Special Report
TAIPEI — China has joined the centuries-old parade of conquerors, colonists, mercenaries and missionaries who go to Africa seeking natural resources, cheap labor and new markets.
Chinese troops serve in United Nations (U.N.) missions throughout the continent. China is sponsoring building programs that include better roads, infrastructure and schools, and Chinese military officials are offering training and support to a variety of African nations, including cheap, if not free, arms.
Perhaps the most visible controversy over China’s surging role came last April, when a Chinese ship bearing small arms for Zimbabwe was refused entry to South African ports. The cargo list included ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles, 1,500 40mm rockets, and 2,500 60mm and 81mm mortar shells.
“China received a black eye on this one,” said David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. “Chinese military equipment is popular in Africa because it is usually much cheaper than Western counterpart equipment.”
China’s recent defense white paper said the country had “1,949 military peacekeeping personnel serving in nine U.N. mission areas and the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations” as of November, including 1,614 in Africa.
This includes 306 in the U.N. missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 558 in Liberia, 435 in the Sudan and 315 engineering troops for the African Union/U.N. Hybrid Operation in Darfur.
“China has far more peacekeepers in Africa than any other permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” said Shinn, an Africa affairs specialist with the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington.
“By comparison, the U.S. had 42 military personnel assigned to U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa as of November 2008.” China has also been reaching out to Africa directly, outside U.N. supervision.
From 2007 to 2008, China accepted senior military delegations from Botswana, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Seychelles, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
China also sent seven senior military delegations to Africa during those years.
“China has a long history of providing military assistance, selling arms and offering military training to African countries” going back to the 1960s, Shinn said. “In recent years, Chinese arms sales and grants have been higher than those of the U.S.” to Africa.
China North Industries Corp. (NORINCO) and Chinese Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. (CPMIEC) displayed a wide range of weaponry at the Africa Aerospace and Defence Exhibition in South Africa in September.
NORINCO exhibited the HJ-8 antitank missile, five models of the MBT-2000 main battle tank, the WMZ551 wheeled infantry fighting vehicle, LD2000 air defense weapon and drawing boards of the PLZ45155 self-propelled artillery systems and the long-range AR2 300mm multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS).
CPMIEC pushed the HQ9 (FD2000) surface-to-air missile system, A100 300mm MLRS, WS2 rocket launcher system, and C-701 and C-704 anti-ship missiles.
Zambia is in talks with NORINCO to upgrade its T-59D tanks’ engines, armor and fire control systems, said Andrei Chang, China defense analyst, Kanwa Defense Center.
Most of Zambia’s arms deals with China have been barter deals in copper, whose value has plummeted along with that of cobalt’s in recent months.
This is causing Chinese investors to pull out — more than 60 Chinese mining companies have left the Congo and more than 100 Chinese companies have abandoned Zambian copper and cobalt mining operations in the past three months. This could slow Chinese arms sales to the continent.
“Few African countries are in a position to purchase new arms,” said Mike Hough of the Institute for Strategic Studies at South Africa’s University of Pretoria.
China remains interested in zinc and aluminum resources in Zimbabwe and could cut a deal for FC1/JF-17 fighters there, depending on the political and economic turmoil. China will most likely focus on African nations with the budget and infrastructure to handle more profitable arms, such as fighter aircraft. Oil rich Nigeria ordered an undisclosed number of Chengdu J7 fighters in 2006 and is now looking at the Hongdu K-8 trainer and possibly the FC-1/JF-17 fighter.
China also insulates itself from charges of meddling because it has no military bases on the continent and says it has no intention to establish any.