|Photo credit: Alessandro ARDUINO
In light of China’s “going out’’ policy, the need to support China’s State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that are investing in high risk areas has expanded the Chinese market for security services. Risk assessment and mitigation in the African countries participating in the BRI requires a wide range of security services along both the maritime and land routes.
Compared to other areas where Chinese PSCs are operating, the African private security dimension is characterized by several peculiarities. First, the African continent still carries the stigma of mercenaries’ behavior during post-colonial conflicts. Second, well before the launch of the BRI and Beijing’s endorsement for PSCs going abroad, several Chinese companies in Africa, operating in a range of sectors from natural resources extraction to small businesses, organized private armed “militia” to protect their interests against criminal or political violence. Third, while the footprint of the Chinese PSCs is still limited, Africa is witnessing a return of the global soldier of fortune in support of local government and international interests, the most recent example of which is the growth of Russian para-military contractors.
There was a clear historical division of roles between the United States’ support for Africa on military and counterterrorism efforts versus China’s promotion of economic development and trade. Now the division is progressively blurring.
The first Chinese military base abroad was established in East Africa, which was not by chance. The opening of the PLAN Naval base in Djibouti in 2017 was China’s concrete response to a changing security environment. Also, during the China-Africa Defense and Security Forum in 2018, Beijing promoted the discussion of Africa's security capacity-building, increasing defense cooperation and deepening China-Africa military ties.
Recent speeches on Africa by both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang clearly illustrate how the Chinese perspective on security is closely intertwined with economic development. Thus, in the African development-security nexus it is compelling to consider the interactions between China’s military and maritime engagement on the continent, peacekeeping missions, and the expanding presence of the Chinese PSCs from Kenya to Sudan. The process of integrating security, conflict resolution, and economic development is still riddled with major shortcomings and unintended consequences.
Nevertheless, an interesting example of integration was observed during the early phase of my research that derived from the maritime security perspective. During a visit to Djibouti, it was clear how the Chinese military base was standing alone in direct proximity and almost as a deliberate challenge to the status quo of older military bases of the US, France, and even Japan. At the same time the Chinese private security sector was already extending feelers in the region from Ethiopia to Djibouti, in order to establish profitable partnerships. For example, during a recent increase in piracy activity from East to West Africa, one company has successfully entered a public-private partnership in the security sector. A Chinese PSC, Hua Xin Zhong An (HXZA), has found a niche market in providing armed guard services aboard Chinese commercial vessels transiting through waters where there is a high risk for hijacking (e.g. Somalia).
The role of HXZA is quite peculiar as it offers a peek into the future of the Chinese PSCs. HXZA is one of the first Chinese security companies that has been able to obtain a permit from the Chinese government to legally carry weapons abroad and to employ foreign consultants. Most importantly, it has proven its ability to work to internationally-recognized standards and to improve efficiency while simultaneously looking at the wellbeing of the local stakeholders.
A literature review reveals many references to the field of private military organizations in Africa, but the recent growth of Chinese PSCs raises significant questions about previous assumptions. I expected to find China’s PSCs acting under a sort of supervision from the the Chinese military or perhaps even closer connections to the Chinese government. Instead, it appears that China’s PSCs are acting in a semi-autonomous manner and are focused on providing niche services such as the resolution of kidnappings and piracy prevention.
Given the potential security requirements of hundreds of Chinese companies operating in Africa, the interaction between the Chinese PSCs and the local stakeholders requires greater study and accurate analysis. Perhaps most importantly, local stakeholder interests must be actively safeguarded.