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June 23, 2021
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Chinese Mercenaries in Africa

 

 

By César Pintado

Sat, 06/05/2021 – 3:03pm

Summary:

Chinese investments in Africa have multiplied in recent years, especially since the 2013 launch of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). But China has realized that it is a mistake to entrust security and development to trade alone.

A new generation of Chinese private security companies sees the BRI as an opportunity for lucrative contracts and international expansion, but its shortcomings are evident on the ground. Currently, the few properly certified Chinese private security companies in Africa appear to be operating semi-autonomously, oriented towards niche markets. And so far not as an extension of the state, but these companies may be the tool Beijing needs to prevent the defense of its citizens and assets from forcing it into military interventions that, for the time being, remain beyond its reach.

 

Introduction

Chinese investments in Africa have multiplied in recent years, especially since the launch of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. The analysis of this increased presence has so far focused on infrastructure projects that have indebted the host countries and the establishment of some military bases such as the one in Djibouti.

Arguably, the opening of the naval base in Djibouti in 2017 was China’s response to an environment that demanded more security for its citizens and its interests. Until then, its presence in Africa was almost entirely devoted to trade and economic development, with the United States carrying the lion’s share of the military and counterterrorism effort. In 2018, Beijing promoted talks on new capabilities for African security forces, defense cooperation and strengthening Afro-Chinese military relations at the China-Africa Forum on Security and Defense[i] . China has realized that it is a mistake to entrust security and development to trade alone, but also the limitations and mistakes of integrating security, conflict resolution and economic development.

In addition, since the beginning of 2018, piracy has increased on the African coasts, both in the East and West[ii] . A trend that has reignited the need for public-private cooperation in the security sector. It is here that a new generation of Chinese companies has found a niche market, from escorting VIPs to providing on-board guards on high-risk shipping routes. There are only a few firms (20 to 25) with the necessary capabilities at the moment, but they offer some clues as to the future of China’s private security sector[iii].

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.

 

Private Security in China

The role of the Communist Party and the state bureaucracy in regulating the sector must be taken into account. Chinese legislation is based on the socialist market economic structure and therefore, from a Western point of view, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between private and public.

Proof of this is that a 1993 Chinese law restricted the pool of PSC managers to military and police commanders. The 2009 Regulation of the Security and Guard Services Administration updated the guidelines of the previous law for the Chinese market[iv]. Although it did not determine a clear chain of command or procedure for providing overseas security, this law  established the Public Security Department of the State Council as the sole entity responsible for supervising and administering security services in China.

As soon as Chinese PSCs started working overseas, the State Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme Court, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the National Development and Reform Commission and even the People’s Liberation Army began to compete for a share of the industry’s supervisory authority[v]. Given the demand for security in BRI, there were great prospects for profits and overseas destinations. The industry norm, both in China and abroad, is still to employ ex-military and police officers, either for loyalty, confidential information handling or cultural affinity. Only large companies are hiring experienced foreign advisors, for example Erik Prince (former CEO of  the famous Blackwater and now  president of Frontier Services Group). [vi]

Although the legal framework for PSCs in China is well defined, there is no specific legislation for their selection and deployment abroad. The domestic sector consists (2017 figures) of about 5,800 companies of various sizes employing about five million people [vii], with an annual growth of about 20%[viii] , making it one of the most booming sectors in China. There are several reasons why so few Chinese PSCs have obtained international certifications. One is the language barrier and technical difficulties, but the main one is the associated cost. The Chinese security market seeks to minimize costs, which also means that Chinese companies are unwilling to pay for quality private security. And even if, since the beginning of 2019, a reduction in the number of companies has been observed, leading to a demand for more professional novelty, it has been common practice for smaller PSCs not to pay social security for their workers and to offer extremely low prices.

To this must be added the temporary nature of employment, with staff hiring turnover reaching up to 65% during the New Year’s campaign. Many of the security guards therefore see their employment as poorly paid, precarious and a temporary solution while waiting for better opportunities.

In a saturated market and a cost war, many PSCs see BRI as an opportunity for lucrative contracts and international expansion, but its shortcomings are evident on the ground. For example, in 2018 five Chinese nationals were arrested in Kenya for attempting to set up a company on tourist visas and without local licences[ix] .

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[x], providing security for Chinese logistics and construction companies in several African countries, from Tanzania to Ethiopia. Both are members of ICOCA[xi].

 

The Private Security Market in Africa

This market is characterized by several particularities, mainly:

  • The ingrained image of the mercenary of the post-colonial period.
  • The existence of numerous armed groups offering their services, including Chinese companies even before the BRI.
  • The return of highly competent PMCs that support local governments or serve non-African interests.

Add to this the shortcomings of local security forces and the unwillingness of Chinese companies to invest in quality security, and it is not surprising that the latter have sometimes hired (and even armed) local militias for their protection. More often than not, this substitute for private security ends in tragedy, as in the case of illegal miners in a Chinese-owned mine in Zambia[xii].

However, it is necessary to emphasize that, despite the widespread notion that terrorism is the main cause of violent death in Africa, it is crime that causes the most human and economic losses[xiii]. Whether on its own or in combination with jihadism, the reality is that it is a growing threat. And the growth of trade, in combination with failed or fragile states, is enabling the expansion of new transnational criminal networks ranging from human trafficking to the plundering of natural resources. Consequently, Africa has become a major private security market for local and foreign companies.

Now, those providing that security in Africa range from local militias like the Koglweogo to high-level PMCs like Academi (formerly known as Blackwater). The type of protection required by companies (public and private) in most of Africa is not very different from other regions; but in high-risk areas such as the Sahel or Libya, security needs to be taken to another level. That requires training, skills and knowledge of the area that few Chinese PSCs have.

To begin with, 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.

Russian contractors in Africa offer support to allied governments without being officially part of the armed forces, providing Moscow with plausible deniability and military assistance in an affordable way[xiv]. Westerners (especially Americans) provide concrete services looking for better cost-effectiveness in specific areas, from logistics to intelligence. The Chinese, newcomers, have to bridge a growing gap between the security their companies need and what they can obtain locally.

Moreover, the African private security market is divided into different zones. In order to design solutions tailored to each threat, the first thing to know is the basic characteristics of the operations area:

  • North Africa (except Libya): protection of embassies, ports and infrastructure, risk of kidnapping and cooperation with PSCs and local security forces.
  • West Africa: increasing maritime insecurity in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea; threat from Boko Haram.
  • Sahel, Libya and South Sudan: heavy use of PMCs, although PSCs are used for the protection of companies and individuals; high-risk area, with a multitude of armed groups.
  • Central Africa: combined presence of PSCs and PMCs, sometimes difficult to differentiate in conflicts such as the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • East Africa: specialized anti-hijacking and maritime security PSCs (piracy upsurge), mainly in Somalia; threat from Al Shabaab.
  • South Africa: large and well-regulated private security sector; preponderance of South African companies, with export of high-level services.

The African private security market has evolved from an oligopoly of companies based in Washington, London or Cape Town to a true free market with a multitude of companies at different levels[xv]. The new PSCs operating in Africa present new capabilities born from the merger of PMCs with private intelligence consultancies employing personnel from agencies such as the CIA, MI-6 or Mossad. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find journalists turned into fixers or investigators dedicated to intelligence gathering[xvi].

 

Chinese Contractors in Africa            

Given China’s penchant for a low profile for its military and PSCs stationed in Africa, there is a perception of neglect in protecting its workers. It has sought to compensate for this perception with the creation of local militias or agreements with existing ones. The mining sector has borne the brunt of this inadequate approach following several incidents, from a shooting in Zambia to the deportation of miners in Ghana[xvii].

Since the attack on the Blue Radisson Hotel in Bamako in 2015, in which three China Railway Corp executives were killed along with other foreigners, the Chinese government has made efforts to protect Chinese workers abroad, while changing that notion of diplomatic unprotection[xviii] .       

Recent pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and off the coast of Somalia against Chinese vessels have revitalized their demand for maritime security services. In August 2019 alone, nine Chinese and eight Ukrainian sailors were kidnapped in attacks on two merchant vessels off the Cameroonian coast. The Gulf of Guinea today accounts for 73% of hijackings and 92% of hostage-taking at sea around the globe, especially off the coasts of Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo[xix] .

In general, large Chinese PSCs began to expand along the lines of their customers along the BRI. HXZA’s expansion began the internationalization of its customers, mainly public companies in the oil and gas sectors. Today its core business is maritime security, mainly off the coast of East Africa.

If HXZA is China’s maritime security giant, Haiwei Dui is arguably its onshore equivalent. Also known as Overseas Service Guardian International Co, it was founded in 2015 by merging several PSCs in response to demand for protection for overseas Chinese investors. Today Haiwei includes 18 overseas subsidiaries (the first was in Tanzania), 11 maritime escort bases, about 2,000 employees and works in 51 countries.

The case of Haiwei is quite representative of this expansion. Its managers state that they have not encountered serious terrorist threats in their areas of operation, their main problem being theft. Most of its customers in Ethiopia are logistics and construction companies. But there is nevertheless a growing alertness to terrorism throughout the BRI: “Gathering intelligence related to terrorist threats through our own channels is part of our routine, and we share that intelligence with interested parties for further processing and taking action against the source of such threats”[xx].

One of the main challenges for Chinese PSCs in Africa is to provide their staff with the necessary local knowledge and security skills. Chinese customers are still reluctant to pay for quality security, but companies such as HXZA, Haiwei or Frontier Services Group already have internationally accredited training certifications, such as Close Protection Operative Level III.

Another problem is that the Chinese military (and thus the pool of personnel for the PSCs) does not have the experience of Russians and Westerners, although they have been involved in UN missions for years. This includes the integration of Chinese and foreign employees in multicultural environments, with different needs and sensitivities. Language remains a barrier for many PSCs, especially in French-speaking Africa.

This leads to an added problem of talent retention, as the few people with the right training, experience and certification end up joining other companies.

In addition, it is necessary to invest in those new information technologies that reduce the human cost and the probability of error: cameras with facial recognition, body scanners, databases, bar code readers, simulators, etc.

For the time being, Chinese PSCs seem to be operating semi-autonomously, oriented towards niche markets such as hijack resolution, facility protection or maritime security. And for the time being they do not act as an extension of the state, unlike several Russian PMCs. Due to the close relationship between the managers of the major Chinese PSCs and their progressive international projection, we cannot rule out the possibility that the interaction between public and private companies will become less transparent in the future.

Moreover, the sector has close ties with the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police. Most of the founders and managers of the PSCs were police or military commanders, and in China the public and private sectors are at the very least intertwined. This does not mean that all Chinese PSCs in Africa operate at the behest of their government or in the best interest of their country[xxi].

When Beijing is expected to define the legal framework for overseas PSCs, one of the most important areas will be more open and transparent regulation of contracts. This would not only promote efficiency and corruption prevention, but also dispel suspicions of the sector’s relationship with the state.

For the sake of this transparency or not, several companies publish their job offers for Africa on the Internet. It is also not difficult to find information on Chinese PSCs in Africa. Let us not forget that these companies, by operating abroad and applying for international certifications, are also exposed to financial audits by foreign agencies and companies, ISO and ICOCA certifications, Lloyds compliance conformities and a whole series of inspections.

 

Conclusions

China’s economic expansion and major investments in Africa have put its citizens and interests in the same spotlight as those of Americans and Europeans. And Africa includes the full spectrum of threats that Chinese companies will face throughout the BRI, from extortion to jihadist attacks. The lessons Beijing draws from the use of its PSCs may therefore be of paramount importance.

China’s experience in Africa in recent years has shown that while sustainable development is necessary, it is not sufficient for stabilization and is far from a panacea for the continent’s problems. Chinese companies operate in some of Africa’s most troubled areas and PSCs help to fill their security deficit, but if this is not done correctly, they can attract armed groups with undesirable consequences.

In Iraq, a rapid expansion of private security coupled with the lack of an adequate legal framework led to a spiral of opaque contracting, uncontrolled violence, corruption and arms trafficking that compromised national reconstruction and caused unnecessary suffering to the civilian population. Not to mention the discrediting of governments and companies. Since most African countries (especially South Africa) have a system of control, licensing and regulation of security services, it is essential to promote and integrate good practices between Chinese and African regulators and PSCs to avoid episodes like the past.

Associations such as the China International Contractors Association [xxii]or the Security Association are also important for feedback on current and past crises and overseas incident reports.

China wishes to maintain a discreet military presence in Africa and avoid at all costs being seen as a new colonial power. The PSCs may be the tool it needs to prevent the defense of its citizens and assets from forcing it into military interventions that, for the time being, remain out of its reach. But it is to be feared that the increase in military aid and private security may lead Beijing to move away from its principle of non-interference.

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