June 27, 2007 | World Defense Review

Hu’s Selling Guns to Africa

In recent years, United States policy makers and analysts as well as American businesses and non-governmental organizations have begun paying closer attention to the already significant – and yet still increasing – engagement of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Africa.

As I noted a year ago in a comprehensive historical survey for American Foreign Policy Interests, the journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, apart from the Central Eurasian region on its own northwestern frontier, perhaps no other foreign region in the world rivals Africa as the object of Beijing's sustained strategic interest. However, while most analysts following this trend have chalked it up to China's need to secure access to energy resources, I argued in this column that the PRC is also pursuing a long-term strategy of staking out business opportunities, diplomatic initiatives, and strategic partnerships – a point proven by President Hu Jintao's twelve-day, eight-nation tour of Africa this past February, the third since he took office in 2003, which I likewise reported here.

However, while the focus has largely been on what China has extracted from Africa, what Beijing brings to the regimes of the continent. It appears that the PRC has progressively found that arms transfers can serve a wide array of Chinese foreign and even domestic policy purposes, including improving relations with particular countries, securing access to desired resources, strengthening allies, gaining commercial opportunities, and, not least of all, directly benefiting the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the defense establishment. The latter effect is achieved in variety of ways. For example, not only do sales generate revenues for military industries, they also indirectly subsidize the PLA's research and development efforts: the more units of something that are sold, the lower the marginal costs. And, ominously, China has found a ready export market for its weapons systems in Africa. A partial list of the Middle Kingdom's recent African buyers would include:

Sudan. Despite the now three-year-old orgy of rape, torture, mutilation, and killing in which up to half a million black Africans have perished and another 2.5 million driven from their homes in the Darfur region – a situation that even the United Nations has labeled “the world's worst humanitarian crisis” – the chief of the joint staff of the Sudanese armed forces, Haj Ahmed El Gaili, enjoyed a weeklong “goodwill visit” to China in April courtesy of Liang Guanglie, chief of PLA general staff, who was undoubtedly eager to cultivate the officer from the country on whom Beijing is now dependent for 7 percent of its oil imports. According to a report from the official Xinhua news agency, the visiting Sudanese general also had an opportunity to meet with Chinese defense minister Cao Gangchuan, who gushed: “Military relations between China and Sudan have developed smoothly…China and Sudan have enjoyed profound friendship though the two countries are far apart. China cherished the traditional friendship with Sudan and would like to further promote bilateral cooperation in various fields.” No doubt that cooperation will include new arms sales on top of the $100 million worth of Shenyang fighter jets, including a dozen supersonic F-7s, already delivered. In a report earlier this year, Amnesty International expressed its concern that:

[T]he Sudan Air Force has transferred these jet bombers to Darfur…without authority from the UN Sanctions Committee and is highly likely to use these newly acquired jets, as it has other aircraft, and the acquisition of expertise to fly the jets supplied from China, for indiscriminate attacks in Darfur in violation of the UN arms embargo and international humanitarian law, thus also posing serious questions about the systems of accountability and training provided to the Sudan Air Force to ensure respect for that universal law.

Ethiopia and Eritrea. China profits handsomely from arms deals with both sides in the smoldering border conflict between the two Horn of Africa countries, which fought a 1998-2000 war that claimed over 100,000 lives over a near-worthless strip of desert around the town of Badme (pre-war population, 1,500). Tensions between the two countries continue to run high with Ethiopia rejecting the arbitrators' decision awarding the town to Eritrea, while the latter country funnels arms to Islamist militants attacking the former's intervention force in Somalia. Consequently, Eritrea maintains the largest military force, both proportionally and in absolute numbers, on the African continent: a standing army of 202,000 out of a population of 4.2 million people means that one in every twenty Eritreans has been inducted as a soldier. Ethiopia possesses the second largest African army, with 183,000 troops, although its population of 76 million can certainly support that number and the ongoing situation in Somalia as well as insurgencies in its Ogaden (Somali kilil) and Oromia regions better justify the maintenance of a larger level of force strength. In any event, bypassing a UN arms embargo, Beijing sold both sides $1 billion worth of arms during the conflict and sales continue apace.


Tanzania. According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations (citing an investigation by Britain's independent Overseas Development Institute), last year the PRC has delivered at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons labeled as “agricultural equipment” to Dar es Salaam. The question is that if it was a legitimate transaction from one state to another – and not something more nefarious – why the need for the elaborate subterfuge?

Equatorial Guinea. At a Congressional hearing last month at which I also testified, Lynn Fredriksson, Amnesty International USA's Africa advocacy director, noted that “according to reports from the U.S. Department of State and Freedom House, as well as Amnesty International, the Government of Equatorial Guinea continues to engage in significant human rights violations, acts with impunity, and is fundamentally corrupt, undemocratic and unaccountable to its citizens.” Yet, according to Dr. Ian Taylor of the University of St. Andrews, who also holds appointments at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda: “China has been providing military training in Equatorial Guinea for equipment that the host country does not even posses. Chinese specialists in heavy military equipment have been sent to the country, presumably in order to sell such weapons to Equatorial Guinea in exchange for oil…The only guess that one may make is that Chinese arms exporters want to introduce such weaponry to Equatorial Guinea in exchange for either oil concessions or hard currency. This fits with China's broad economic ambitions in Africa, i.e., profits and oil supplies.” One might add that Equatorial Guinea appears to be the ideal customer: President Theodoro Obiang Nguema, his family, and his extended kinsfolk have been the principal beneficiaries of rising oil prices, yet their lack of political legitimacy and nonexistent provision of public services – two-thirds of the population have no access to running water or electricity – have set them on a quest for the “hard power” instruments to maintain their regime.

Zimbabwe. At a time when the thuggish regime of Robert Mugabe is universally shunned by the civilized world, not least for its crackdown on the political opposition, the PRC has literally handed Zimbabwe the tools of repression: PLA's definition of “mil-to-mil” relations includes providing a radio-jamming device for a military base outside Harare that prevents independent stations from trying to contradict state-controlled media. As one statement from the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters san frontières noted, “Thanks to support from China, which exports its repressive expertise, Robert Mugabe's government has yet again just proved itself to be one of the most active predators of press freedom.” For Beijing's military-industrial complex, however, it may just be a matter of “customer courtesy” for a very reliable client. In late 2004, Zimbabwe paid an estimated $200 million for twelve FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles. In 2005, it spent $245 million on a dozen K-8 light attack aircraft (the K-8 is the export version of the Hongdu JL-8 jointly developed by the PRC and Pakistan). Last year, for $120 million – an amount that could have fed the entire country for three months – Zimbabwe's octogenarian president purchased six training aircraft for his air force from the China Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation.

Beijing has also made a concerted effort to woo new African clients, adopting for the promotion of its military-industrial interests on the continent many of the same long-term stratagems, which it has used to great effect in the natural resource and diplomatic arena.

It has even tried to court allies of Washington like Uganda, which was visited late last year by PLA General Li Zhongli who held talks with senior officials of Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF). While the annual value of Chinese arms sales to Uganda has averaged less than $250,000, the Chinese officer donated one hundred military transport trucks to his hosts. The China Wanbao Engineering Company (CWEC) is building a new $30 million headquarters for the UPDF. Why the generosity? In addition to winning new friends for the regime, this largesse opens doors for the future. It is well-known in military circles that given the increasing responsibilities which the country has assumed for regional and international peacekeeping (inter alia, as I previously reported, Uganda has thus far been the only country to honor its commitment to send troops to the UN-authorized African Union peacekeeping force Somalia), the UPDF is overdue for an upgrade, including significant acquisitions. Not so coincidentally, CWEC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the PRC's state-owned Norinco (a.k.a. China North Industries Corporation), a firm best known for its manufacture for export of defense materiel including both high-end products like precision strike systems, long-range suppression weapon systems, and anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems and low-end products like anti-riot gear and small arms.

Like its engagement in so many other sectors, China's involvement in the African arms trade will likely only broaden and deepen with Beijing's interest in and influence over the continent. What is troubling about this is Beijing's “no strings attached” posture whereby its arms deals, like its political and commercial ties, are struck with incumbent regimes irrespective of their governance or human rights records. While other powers involved in Africa – the United States included – have had to deal with some of the continent's less than savory regimes, in these cases the Western governments were, to a certain extent, checked by the fact that they could only go so far lest civil society groups at home raise issues. The Chinese authorities have no such constraint. Furthermore, the PRC's entrance into Africa also undermines what little leverage Western governments and international organizations have with recalcitrant regimes by offering the latter diplomatic cover as well as more concrete assistance in exchange for their support of Beijing's interests.

If, as the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States of America went out of its way to affirm, “Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration” and that “the United States recognizes that our security depends upon partnering with Africans to strengthen fragile and failing states and bring ungoverned areas under the control of effective democracies,” then Chinese moves there need to be closely followed, especially if they result in additional arms flowing to despotic regimes and fueling simmering conflicts.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.