China’s role in Africa’s conflicts: Military cooperation, arms transfers and involvement in peacekeeping operations

 Written by Diego Cordano (1) Friday, 11 April 2014 11:06


The growing presence and influence of China in international politics seems to be particularly evident in Africa. The relationship between China and Africa is predominantly economic, but China’s role in Africa is continuously increasing in the political and security domains. Increased involvement provides new opportunities, but also several challenges. This paper analyses how China’s activities in Africa can affect peace, stability and the evolution of the conflicts on the continent, looking in particular at three different aspects: China-Africa military cooperation, the transfer of Chinese-made arms to African states, and Chinese participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations.

The first part of this paper assesses the effects of Chinese military cooperation with several African states, while the second section looks into the repercussions of China’s important role in the trade of arms within Africa. Unfortunately, the scarcity of open source data concerning these issues makes it difficult to assess the relevance and the effects of such assistance. The fact that the Chinese state is directly involved in the enterprises producing weapons makes China extremely reticent about the details of its exports.(2) Nonetheless, some conclusions regarding China’s role in these domains can be drawn. Finally, this paper analyses the relevance of China’s contribution to peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations in the UN context in order to evaluate the existence of a clear Chinese strategy and to understand if this involvement can contribute to security and stability on the African continent.

China-Africa military cooperation


China has a long history of engagement in Africa, especially during the Cold War period. This has allowed the development of a reputation that, today, favours strong ties with several African countries. In addition, China often depicted itself as the world’s largest developing country and this representation can prove very useful in dealing with the African continent and allows China to gain several advantages compared to Western states.

In the last decade, China has devoted much attention to military cooperation with Africa. China’s 2006 Africa policy states, for example, that “China will promote high-level military exchanges between the two sides and actively carry out military-related technological exchanges and co-operation. It will continue to help train African military personnel and support defence and army building of African countries for their own security.”(3) In the same vein, China’s 2008 Defence White paper illustrates that “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) develops co-operative military relations with other countries that are non-aligned, non-confrontational and not directed against any third party, and engages in various forms of military exchanges and co-operation in an effort to create a military security environment featuring mutual trust and mutual benefit.”(4)

The military relations between China and African states are under-examined since Chinese military help is not always transparent. Thus, it is difficult to evaluate clearly the nature and the details of such a relationship. Nonetheless, as pointed out by David Shinn, it can be said that China seems to offer at least a small level of military assistance to all of the countries with which it maintains diplomatic relations: in particular, China has established deep military ties with Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.(5) It is therefore worth noting that military assistance is provided not only to countries relevant because of their natural resources, as illustrated by the fact that China has maintained important military cooperation with Tanzania, a country which is unimportant with regard to raw materials even though it assumes relevance as a port and rail terminus.

As is typical on the part of China, military ties are often developed on a bilateral basis through high-level political delegations.(6) These ties with African countries are marked by different components. An important role is played by financial assistance by way of grants and aid. Another component is the transfer of conventional weapons and military technologies.

In addition to economic assistance, China also provides African militaries with training and assistance programmes. In 2007, China began, for example, a de-mining assistance programme in Angola, Burundi, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sudan with the aim of training personnel. China has in addition provided these countries with equipment and funds to conduct de-mining operations. On the whole, the PLA was able to train about 300 de-miners in 20 countries contributing to the clearance of nearly 200,000 square meters of mine field. This contribution is below that of the United States (US) and other states such as Norway but is, however, extremely relevant.(7) Chinese engagement in training personnel able to de-mine should be, therefore, welcomed as an important step in improving security conditions in Africa.

However, Chinese assistance can be ineffective in bringing about peace and security if not connected to governance and development issues. In addition, since its help is not conditional to the respect of human rights or political conditions, China has supported military forces responsible for the violations of international humanitarian law, such as the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo FARDC in the eastern part of the DRC or the elite Commandos in Guinea.(8) The help guaranteed to military forces that are used by authoritarian governments as a tool to maintain power can certainly increase short-term stability, but at the price of negative effects on the development and the long-term security of those countries. It must be observed, however, that assessing the role of Chinese assistance can be extremely tricky and it’s worth considering that even other countries such as South Africa, France and the US have trained military forces involved in violations of human rights.

China’s arms trade with Africa

Similar considerations can be drawn with regard to the Chinese arms trade. China has made clear that its export of arms must comply with different main principles: arms must be intended to support states’ legitimate self-defence, they must not put at risk peace and stability within importer states, and must not be intended to interfere in the internal affairs of the recipient country.(9)

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) China has transferred arms and weapons especially towards South Asia and the Middle East in the last 10 years.(10) However, Africa is assuming a growing importance and China was, for example, the most important exhibitor during the Africa Aerospace and Defence 2010 expo in South Africa.(11) There is widespread evidence that China has transferred armaments to several African states, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Namibia and Nigeria.(12) According to Peter Wezeman, author of the SIPRI report, “Africa is quite an important market for the Chinese arms industry because it is a stepping stone to becoming a first-tier arms exporter.”(13) China’s involvement in Africa can guarantee several advantages since the competition of Western companies is low and China can present itself as a reliable supplier that doesn’t make the sale of weapons dependant on the respect of human rights. In addition, China is able to offer “friendship pricing” and very favourable financing options.(14)

While during the Cold War the trade of armaments was strictly connected with the support of rebel groups and liberation movements, China is now selling weapons as a component of the general strategy of consolidating political ties and economic relations. The sale of armaments could, for example, facilitate China’s attempt at gaining access to important natural resources. However, focusing only on this economic linkage is too simplistic and does not capture the complex reality.

In the last five years, China seems to have adopted a more conservative approach, at least partially motivated by the critics of the presence of a great amount of Chinese arms on the continent. China has still been wary of the different attempts within the UN to tackle the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons (SALW). However, it has increasingly accepted the relevance of these discussions especially in the case where the international community has shown a strong commitment. This is well expressed by the declaration made by China’s Special Representative to Africa, Liu Guijin, who stated, “China would do its best to prevent weapons from finding their way into the wrong hands and from doing the wrong things.”(15)

In general, China still considers the transfer of arms as a way to reinforce the stability of African states, an important aspect for China especially where it maintains relevant economic interests. China’s behaviour, however, risks undermining, on certain occasions, the respect of human rights and does not contribute to the creation of more responsible and accountable militaries. A prime example is Sudan, where the army has committed human rights violations with Chinese arms and with tacit support from China’s government.(16) China’s official position was that it had told Sudan’s government not to use Chinese military equipment in Darfur, but Khartoum constantly used those arms to perpetrate attacks against Darfur’s black Africans.(17)

China and peacekeeping/peacebuilding operations in Africa: A growing involvement

China has always been very clear in arguing that any peacekeeping intervention must be based on precise indispensable principles: an intervention can be legitimate only with the authorisation of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC); state sovereignty must be respected and the consent of the host country must be obtained; many crises must be considered as internal problems and not as threats to international security; and force must be used only in case of self-defence. In addition, China has always been very careful to obtain the consent of regional organisations before taking part in the missions. Keeping in mind these considerations, China has become increasingly involved in peacekeeping missions, which have often been described by the Chinese Government as a relevant effort to help Africa obtain peace and security.

China is assuming a more active and less conservative approach to peacekeeping, as evident from Chinese support for the UN Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC/MONUSCO) and for the use of force to protect civilians from human rights violations. Between 2003 and 2013, China deployed UN peacekeepers to Mali following the French intervention, sent police forces to Liberia, and was deeply involved in the attempt to get to a ceasefire in the South Sudan. In addition, it is worth noting Chinese participation in the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia.

All together, in December 2013, China was deploying 2,078 peacekeepers in nine different missions (174 policemen, 39 military experts and 1,865 military troops), more than any other permanent member of the UNSC, and was the sixth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget.(18) The vast majority of Chinese peacekeepers are deployed in Africa: in particular, China has at the moment military personnel involved in Cote D’Ivoire, Darfur, the DRC, Liberia, Mali, Republic of South Sudan, and Western Sahara.

Chinese involvement in UN peacekeeping operations

Chinese involvement in UN peacekeeping operations (19)

In August 2013, the UN Special Representative for Mali, Albert Gerard Koenders, made clear the relevance of China’s role in providing peacekeeping forces in Mali: “The UN Secretary-General said that China and its peacekeeping role in Mali were very important, but now I would have to say, China’s important work has exceeded expectations.”(20) The involvement of China in Mali has had, in fact, peculiar characteristics: while China has been used to dispatch engineers, logistical and medical personnel in some previous missions such as in Liberia and in the DRC (but also Cambodia and Lebanon outside Africa), in Mali China has deployed security forces appropriate to assure the peace. In the same vein, in 2010, Alain le Roy, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Affairs, declared “We are extremely pleased with China’s participation in UN peace- keeping operations.”(21) Chinese relations with problematic regimes may also benefit UN peacekeeping efforts, encouraging some countries to consent to the operations.(22)

The Chinese Government sees the involvement in peacekeeping as a way to influence the missions from within and to gain a relevant profile throughout the UN, obtaining diplomatic and economic advantages. China is also well aware that its own long-term economic development will rely upon a peaceful international environment, which can allow international trade and the opportunity to have access to the natural resources needed for its development. In addition, China seems increasingly aware of the relevance of soft power. From this perspective, UN peacekeeping operations can be seen as a relevant tool to raise China’s profile as a responsible power.

However, China has not abandoned completely its caution, as evident with regard to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). With the aim of defending the sovereignty of Khartoum, China has obstructed UNMIS several times, for example, opposing the UNMIS human rights budget. The fact that China regards the consent of the host state as essential to begin a peacekeeping operation put the Chinese Government at odds with other Western states in several occasions. According to China, the only case where this consent would not be necessary is the case of failed states. In addition, a sector where China has not yet increased its involvement and played an important role is peacebuilding, where it could assume a critical role to guarantee peace and stability in post-conflict countries. So far, China has considered this kind of intervention as interfering too heavily in the domestic and sovereign affairs of states.(23)

China’s role in the security and stability in Africa: A mixed influence

Beijing’s growing influence in African security is certainly motivated to a great extent by the attempt to safeguard its interests on the continent, which often seem to coincide with the need of peace and security of the African continent and can favour stability in several African countries. Chinese energy security, for instance, has obviously engendered a strong Chinese interest in assuring the stability of those regions that are essential for its energy supply. Given the vast presence of workers in infrastructures on the continent, the security of Chinese workers is clearly another one of China’s main interests that can push China to uphold stability in Africa.

In general, a tension between Chinese responsibility as an international ascending power and its interest in protecting economic and political ties can be observed. The effect of Chinese military assistance, provision of arms to African states and Chinese involvement in peacekeeping operations on the continent has been mixed so far. China has contributed to increased security and stability thanks to the de-mining training provided to African military personnel and to the participation in UN peacekeeping missions. In this regard, Chinese relations with authoritarian regimes may also help UN peacekeeping efforts, encouraging some countries to consent to the operations. On the other hand, China does not select the beneficiary of its help depending on respect for human rights or human security. Thus, China is not contributing to the creation of more responsible and accountable militaries. The help guaranteed to military forces that are used by authoritarian governments as a tool to maintain power can certainly increase short-term stability but at the price of negative effects on the long-term security of those countries.



(1) Diego Cordano is a Research Associate at CAI. Contact Diego through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( Edited by Nicky Berg.
(2) Bromley, M., Duchatel, M. and Holtom, P., 2013, ‘China’s exports of small arms and light weapons’, SIPRI Policy Paper no. 38’, October 2013,
(3) ‘China’s Africa policy’, Forum on China-African Cooperation, 2006,
(4) ‘China’s national defence in 2008’,Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2009,
(5) Shinn, D., 2008. “Military and security relations: China, Africa and the rest of the World”, in Rotberg, R. (ed.). China into Africa: Trade, aid, and influence, Brookings: Cambridge.
(6) ‘China’s growing role in African peace and security’, Saferworld, January 2011,
(7) AidData Open Data for International Development website,
(8) ‘Guinea: You did not want the military, so now we are going to teach you a lesson – The events of September 28 2009 and their aftermath’, Amnesty International, 24 February 2010,
(9) ‘China’s policy and regulation on arms trade’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2009,
(10) Ibid.
(11) ‘China to be biggest exhibitor at Defence Expo’, Business Standard, 2 September 2010,
(12) ‘China’s growing role in African peace and security’, Saferworld, January 2011,
(13) Lynch, C., ‘China’s arms exports flooding sub-Saharan Africa’, The Washington Post, 25 August 2012,
(14) Gelfand, L., ‘China cultivates Africa ties’, Jane’s Defense Weekly, 3 November 2010.
(15) ‘China tries to prevent weapons in Darfur’, Sudan Tribune, 6 July 2007,
(16) Weapons deliveries from China to Sudan since 1995 have included ammunition, tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft. See ‘China’s involvement in Sudan: Arms and oil’, Human Rights Watch, November 2003,; ‘China: Sustaining conflict and human rights abuses: The flow of arms continues’, Amnesty International, 9 June 2006,
(17) Andersson, H., ‘China is fuelling war in Darfur’, BBC News, 13 July 2008,
(18) United Nations Peacekeeping Website,
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid.
(21) ‘UN official lauds China’s contribution to peacekeeping efforts’, People’s Daily Online, 30 July 2010,
(22) ‘China’s growing role in UN peacekeeping’, International Crisis Group, Asia Report no. 166, 17 April 2009,
(23) Collier, P., 2002. The bottom billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

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