Chinese Involvement in African Conflict Zones

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 7

As China expands its engagement throughout Africa, it increasingly finds itself involved in African conflict zones either by design or accident.  This involvement takes essentially three forms: Chinese participation in UN peacekeeping operations, Chinese weapons, especially small arms, which make their way into conflict zones, and kidnapping of Chinese nationals or attacks on Chinese facilities and nationals.  In the case of kidnappings and attacks, China is beginning to face some of the same challenges that have confronted western interests for decades.  

African Security

It is important to put China’s African security policy in perspective.  China offers a political, economic, and even security alternative to the West for many African countries.  Sudan and Zimbabwe, countries ostracized by the West, depend on China for much of their military equipment.  Countries such as Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger look to Africa as a source of financing free of Western conditions.  On human rights issues, China supports African governments and they often support China in the UN Human Rights Council.  For its part, China increasingly relies on Africa as a source of strategic materials such as oil, copper, cobalt and tantalum.  

Although China is a significant supplier of arms and military equipment to African countries, it has limited military presence besides the assignment of personnel to UN peacekeeping operations, occasional training and exchange programs and the assignment of defense attachés to Chinese embassies.  China rarely sends its naval ships to African ports; its last naval visit took place in 2002 [1].  China did recently join the international effort to combat Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and it is pursuing in the Indian Ocean a “string of pearls” strategy that will eventually lead to Africa’s east coast [2]. China apparently has no plans at the moment to extend its naval influence to Africa’s east coast, but it almost certainly is interested in protecting the sea lanes that bring oil from Sudan and around the Cape from West Africa.  In 2000, Chinese naval vessels visited Tanzania and South Africa.  

Peacekeeping, Anti-piracy and De-mining Assistance

China began in the early 1990s to send small numbers of personnel to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.  The numbers started to increase significantly in 2001 when China sent more than 200 troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and soon followed this with other large contingents.  In 2007, Major-General Zhao Jingmin became the first Chinese to command a UN peacekeeping operation, MINURSO in the Western Sahara (UN News Service, August 27, 2007).  By the end of February 2009, China had 1,745 troops, police and observers assigned to six of the UN’s seven peacekeeping operations in Africa.  The largest units were in Liberia, Southern Sudan, Darfur and the DRC.  About 75 percent of all Chinese peacekeepers serve in Africa.  Although China contributes only 3 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, it has far more peacekeepers in Africa than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council [3].   

China has received widespread praise from African leaders, the UN and the United States for its willingness to send peacekeepers to the continent.  Bates Gill and Chin-Hao Huang at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute identified three reasons for China’s interest in peacekeeping.  First, making a positive contribution to peace and security helps China to project a more benign and “harmonious” image and to balance U.S. and Western influence.  Second, the PLA wants to expand its non-combat missions such as peacekeeping, anti-piracy, disaster response and humanitarian relief.  Third, the PLA and Chinese security forces can learn important lessons and obtain practical experience that may improve their responsiveness, riot-control capabilities, coordination of military emergency command systems and ability to conduct non-combat missions at home [4].

China deployed early in 2009 two destroyers, including the Wuhan, one of its most sophisticated warships, and a supply ship to help combat Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden.  The ships have about 800 crew and 70 special operations troops (Reuters, January 6, 2009; China Brief, January 22).  Some 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships passing through the Gulf of Aden in 2008 came under attack, including the hijacking of a Hong Kong registered tanker (The Associated Press, December 19, 2008; Xinhua News Agency, September 16, 2008).  This engagement gives the PLA valuable naval experience far from its shores and permits China to project power in an area that is important to its trade.  U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney praised China’s contribution to the anti-piracy effort.  He commented that “The work they’ve done has been highly professional, it’s been highly effective, and it’s been very well coordinated with the United States and the other navies that are working there” (USA Today, February 28).  

China’s de-mining assistance has contributed positively to post-conflict situations in Africa.  In the past two years, China held de-mining courses for Angola, Mozambique, Chad, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.  China donated de-mining equipment to all of the aforementioned countries and Egypt provided Ethiopia with mine eradication funds [5].     

Arms Sales

While Chinese contributions to peacekeeping, anti-piracy and de-mining have been positive for Africa, its arms sales have had negative implications when they become employed in Africa’s myriad conflicts.  China has provided military equipment to African countries going back to the Algerian revolution in the 1950s and military support for numerous African liberation groups.  From 2000-2003, China delivered by value about 13 percent of all arms to Sub-Saharan Africa, the second highest provider after Russia’s 16 percent.  From 2004-2007, China’s percentage increased to almost 18 percent, although it remained in second place after Germany’s 24 percent.  During 2004-2007, Chinese deliveries included 240 artillery pieces, 370 APCs and armored cars, 29 minor surface combatants, 10 supersonic combat aircraft and 40 other aircraft [6].  

Of greater concern has been the provision over the years of small arms and light weapons (SALW) to Africa.  Although the dollar value for any particular country has often been small, since 2000 China has delivered SALW to at least 27 of Africa’s 53 countries.  The largest recipients have been Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire [7].  Three of these countries—Sudan, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire—have been experiencing internal conflict since 2000.  There is a growing concern that China, because its small arms are so inexpensive, is becoming the provider of choice for the generic version of the AK-47 and related assault rifles.  Although China sells the weapons to African governments, they are increasingly finding their way into conflict zones [8].   

The eastern DRC constitutes one of the longest-running conflicts in Africa.  There have been numerous accounts over the years that Chinese small arms have contributed to the killing.  Amnesty International reported that Chinese AK-47s were common among soldiers, militia and armed groups operating in the Kivu Provinces and the Ituri District of the DRC where the weapons have been used to commit atrocities.  The UN Mission in the DRC investigated the origin of 1,100 weapons collected in Ituri District and determined that 17 percent were of Chinese origin.  Amnesty concluded they reached the area from deliveries made to the governments of the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi or through third parties outside the region [9].

China’s most controversial military sales concern Sudan where there have been two major conflicts—the North-South civil war and the crisis in Darfur.  China provided up to 90 percent of the SALW delivered to Sudan between 2004 and 2006.  China also helped build three weapons factories outside Khartoum.  Chinese small arms became widely used in Darfur and found their way to the conflict in neighboring Chad [10].  Most ammunition used by all parties in Darfur is manufactured in Sudan or in China (UN Security Council report, January 30, 2006).  A Darfur rebel group captured from government forces in Darfur Chinese military trucks, one outfitted with a Chinese anti-aircraft gun.  Sudanese pilots, reportedly trained by China, used Chinese Fantan attack aircraft to conduct operations in Darfur (BBC News, July 14, 2008).  China’s Special Envoy for Darfur, Liu Guijin, denied that Chinese weapons are fueling the conflict, arguing that China provides only 8 percent of Sudan’s total arms imports (Financial Times, February 23, 2008).  

Attacks on Chinese

Chinese nationals and installations increasingly find themselves in harm’s way as their presence grows, especially in or near conflict zones.  The most serious incident occurred in Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited Ogaden region in April 2007.  There has been a long-standing conflict between Ethiopian government forces and Somali rebel groups.  The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), after warning foreigners to stay out of the region, attacked a Chinese base camp operated by the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau that was exploring for natural gas. The ONLF killed nine Chinese in the attack on the Ethiopian-guarded facility and captured a number of others who were subsequently released (Washington Post, April 26, 2007; New York Times, April 25, 2007).  China abandoned the project and has not returned.   

China experienced a similar situation in Southern Kordofan, which borders Darfur, where its oil operations protected by Sudan’s government have come under attack.  In October 2007, the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) briefly seized Chinese oil facilities at Defra as a warning to China to cease its military and political support for Khartoum (Terrorism Monitor, August 11, 2008).  In December 2007, JEM attacked the Heglig oil facility run by the Great Wall Drilling Company.  JEM’s leader announced, “We are doing these attacks because China is trading petroleum for our blood” (The Associated Press, December 11, 2007).  The most serious incident occurred in October 2008 when an unknown group carried out a third attack that resulted in the kidnapping of nine Chinese employees of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).  The rebel group killed four of them while four others were rescued and one remains missing (The Associated Press, October 21, 2008; Xinhua News Agency, October 28, 2008).

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in Nigeria has been conducting attacks against the government for years on the grounds that the oil producing areas do not receive a fair share of the revenue.  MEND warned Chinese and other foreign nationals to stay out of the Niger Delta (Washington Post, May 1, 2006).  In recent years, more than a dozen Chinese nationals from a variety of Chinese companies with personnel conducting projects in the region have been kidnapped and eventually released.  MEND probably is responsible and likely received a ransom for the release of the Chinese and other foreign nationals (Xinhua News Agency, January 9, 2007; VOA News, January 18, 2007; China Daily, May 9, 2008).    
Tuareg rebels in Niger kidnapped and released several days later a Chinese uranium executive in July 2007 as a warning to China for disregarding the environment and signing an unacceptable agreement with the Niger government.  During the same month, rebels attacked an armed convoy heading to a CNPC exploration camp in Niger (Reuters, July 10, 2007; China Brief, October 3, 2007).  Returning to the DRC, one Chinese national was killed late in 2008 as a result of conflict near Lubumbashi (China Brief, January 12).  Chinese nationals are increasingly experiencing violence in non-conflict areas too.  Two Chinese nationals were killed and four injured as striking Chinese workers in Equatorial Guinea faced off against local police (Xinhua News Agency, March 31, 2008).  Armed robbers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, recently killed a Chinese merchant and wounded another (Xinhua News Agency, March 19, 2009).  


Chinese peacekeeping, anti-piracy activity and de-mining engage China in a positive way in current or former African conflict zones.  These efforts are generally appreciated by African leaders and the international community.  African governments welcome the availability of low cost weapons from China, especially when Western governments are not willing to sell them arms.  Together with arms originating in other countries, however, they sometimes exacerbate African conflicts.  China tends to take greater business risks than Western countries in Africa, including allowing Chinese business representatives to work in or near conflict zones.  As a result, Chinese nationals are beginning to pay a high price for this risk taking. 


1.  David H. Shinn, “Military and Security Relations: China, Africa, and the Rest of the World,” in China into Africa, ed. Robert I. Rotberg (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 180.
2.  Robert D. Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-First Century,” Foreign Affairs, 88, issue 2 (March/April 2009), 16-32.
3.  For peacekeeping statistics, see  Also see Garth Shelton, “China: Africa’s New Peacekeeper,” The China Monitor, issue 33 (September 2008), 4-5.  
4.  See “China’s Expanding Peacekeeping Role; Its Significance and the Policy Implications,” SIPRI Policy Brief (February 2009), 4-5.  Also see Ian Taylor, “China’s Role in Peacekeeping in Africa,” The China Monitor, issue 33 (September 2008), 6-8.
5.  China’s National Defense in 2008, white paper available at
6.  Richard F. Grimmett, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2000-2007,” CRS Report for Congress (October 23, 2008), 50 & 61.   
7.  Arthur Waldron (ed.), China in Africa (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2008), 102-104.
8.  Kester Klomegah, “Russia Supplying Legal and Illegal Arms to Africa,” (2009), see at; Reuters, December 14, 2006; “China’s Foreign Policy and ‘Soft Power’ in South America, Asia, and Africa,” U.S. Senate study by the Congressional Research Service (April 2008), 113.
9.  Amnesty International, “China: Sustaining Conflict and Human Rights Abuses: The Flow of Arms Continues” (2006).  Also see Jonathan Holslag, “Friendly Giant? China’s Evolving Africa Policy,” BICCS Background Paper (August 24, 2007), 9.
10.  Amnesty; Holslag; William D. Hartung, “Deadly Traffic: China’s Arms Trade with the Sudan,” Arms and Security Initiative Policy Brief (August 2008).