One of the surest signs of Sino-Russian rivalry is emerging in Africa and comes from reports of China trying to provide more security and military assistance to African nations. This is despite the geo-political bonhomie that otherwise marks bilateral ties in the global context and especially over the war in Ukraine. The strengthening of Chinese military and security cooperation with African nations, comes at a time when it perceives that continued reliance on Russian military assistance is creating a skewed balance in the region. China, on its part, is quite strong in Africa in economic terms, but as Nikkei Asia reports, African nations continue to rely on Russia for military assistance, despite the conflict in Ukraine. This is the new competition afoot in Africa with a Russia-China rivalry in the picture. President Putin took an indirect dig at China in 2019, when he defined Russia’s interests in Africa. “We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth,” he said. “Rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa.” This is the reason for China’s renewed concern.
The VOA reported in February 2022 that since at least 2007, Russia had been increasing military and other economic involvement in Africa. The 2019 Russia-Africa Summit produced contracts to supply military armaments and equipment to more than thirty African countries. Businesses, including state-backed commercial interests, have invested heavily in security sectors, technology and industries that extract natural resources such as oil, gas, gold and other minerals. This link is based on the Cold War connect the Russians established with Africa through the supply of arms and ammunition. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that Russia supplied 44 per cent of Africa’s arms imports between 2017 and 2021. Many West African leaders and governments are propped up with support from mercenaries of the Wagner Group, a private Russian security company, and many countries rely on Russia for much of their wheat and fertilizer. In recent years, the former Soviet power has been rebuilding ties with Africa more quietly, strengthening economic and military cooperation.
However, China has made concerted efforts to penetrate the arms market in Africa. Nigeria is the latest beneficiary of Chinese equipment. On 28 October 2022, the Nigerian Navy received a patrol boat and other military supplies from China to combat maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea. Officially, China has provided military aid to countries in Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, and policing equipment to countries including the Central African Republic and Namibia. West Africa in particular, has been tilting towards China for a while in terms of military aid. Accounting for 25 per cent of African maritime traffic, and two-thirds of Africa’s oil production, the region faces a number of security threats. An estimated 120,000 barrels of crude oil are reportedly stolen every day from Nigeria, equivalent to roughly 6 per cent of the country’s output. In Lagos city of Nigeria, China Harbour Engineering has constructed the Lekki Deep Sea Port, one of the biggest ports in West Africa and designed to handle 1.2 million containers a year. It is meant to serve as a new marine logistics centre for the whole region, opening another wave of investment opportunities between China and Africa.
The point to note is that key infrastructure, including oil and gas, railways and airports are already in the hands of the Chinese. Therefore, for China to enter the African military market is not too difficult. Offering military assistance is also in China’s interest to avoid collateral damage from terrorist attacks on infrastructure, and to protect Chinese nationals. Over the last eight years, China has participated in almost forty military exchanges with partners from the Gulf of Guinea, and deployed navy vessels for anti-piracy operations. China also plans to establish a military hub in Equatorial Guinea. China’s primary objective now, like Western countries did in the past, is superpower projection. The new-found Chinese interest in providing military supplies to Africa is also because it wants to challenge US supremacy. The US has 29 known military facilities in fifteen countries and while China’s first military base in Africa, operated by People’s Liberation Army Navy, is in Djibouti. China thus today is on the table as much as the US and France, thus offering new choices for African leaders.
While China has kept its forces from getting directly involved in crises in Africa, it has taken an increasingly high profile in United Nations peacekeeping missions. It has, for instance, sent more than 1,000 troops, police, and specialists to oil-rich South Sudan. However, reports indicate that China is more focused on economic and national security interests than on peace building. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, China has a very close relationship with the government, but attacks in the resource-rich east of the country by a number of rebel groups pose threats to its mining interests. Angola is also a long-standing recipient of Chinese military assistance, having received from 2004 to 2018, mostly consisting of the training of Angolan armed forces, senior police officers and the provision of IT equipment.
The South China Morning Post reports that Zimbabwe is perhaps the most long-standing African recipient of security force assistance from China. China provided military training to Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, which was led by Robert Mugabe, during its fight for liberation. Those trained included President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power five years ago following the coup that ousted Mugabe. Security force assistance included donations, typically of military equipment and training, that aimed to enhance the capacity of a recipient’s security forces. China’s total spending on security force assistance to African countries between 2015 and 2020 was around the US$25 million a year. Great power competition has thus re-emerged in Africa with Russia and China systematically aiming to provide greater military and security assistance to African nations. However, the competition between China and Russia for access to Africa could indirectly impact the foremost player in the region, the US.