Resources, Security and Influence: The Role of the Military in China’s Africa Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 11

Of all the elements of growing national power China now wields to promote its national interests in Africa, its military’s role raises the most anxiety. Beijing’s Africa Strategy to promote China’s economic (resource access and trade) and political (One China recognition) interests explicitly tie in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to support overall peace and security for its interests in Africa. The strategy tasks the PLA with conducting high-level and technological military cooperation and exchanges, training African military personnel and “support[ing] defense and army building” in African countries [1]. Additionally, the PLA (and police) support China’s Africa Strategy through participation in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (PKO), and non-traditional missions, such as combating terrorism, small arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and transnational economic crimes. Consequently, the PLA now maintains a growing military presence on the African continent. Estimates range from approximately 1,200 soldiers, including PKO forces, to over 5,000 [2]. Its military-to-military contacts extend throughout the continent, reaching at least 43 countries to provide a network of military relations from which to shape its future role in Africa.

Defense Attaché Representation

Chinese Embassy defense attaché offices throughout Africa provide the diplomatic foundation for China’s military contacts. Accredited defense attaches link the PLA to host country militaries. Defense attaché duties vary, but as a minimum, Chinese attaches report on local matters from a military and/or security perspective, and facilitate contacts with local armed forces. China currently maintains bilateral diplomatic military relations with at least 25 African countries, spread across the main regions of the continent.

At least 14 out of the 107 Chinese military attaché offices worldwide are in African countries. Collectively, these offices hold at least 30 diplomatically accredited military officers, in addition to support personnel. They are located in Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Beijing, 18 African countries maintain permanent defense attaché offices [2]. Six of these offices were directly reciprocal: Algeria (which has continuously maintained a defense attaché in Beijing since January 1971), Egypt, Namibia, Nigeria, Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The eleven remaining countries that do not have known Chinese resident equivalents in Africa include Burundi, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Niger, South Africa and Tanzania.

Since 1985, China has almost doubled the number of defense attaché offices worldwide from 59 to 107 [4]. In Africa, however, the number of Chinese defense attaché offices increased quite modestly from only nine to 14, maintaining an average of 15 percent of all of China’s defense attaché offices over the past 20 years. In contrast, China has a defense attaché office in practically every capital in Europe.

Reported Defense-to-Military Activities

China divides its primary bilateral military activities with foreign countries into four main categories [5]:

1. Major Military Exchanges [See Appendix 1]. Between 2001 and 2006, Chinese military leaders visited Africa over 30 times, touring virtually every country that recognizes China. These visits often included more than one country, but several of the countries received multiple stopovers by Chinese military leaders. Of these, Egypt, by far, welcomed the highest number of Chinese senior delegations—15 during the course of these six years. Additionally, China’s still rare naval ship visits have included stops in Africa. Rear Admiral Huang Jiang led the first PLA Navy (PLAN) ship visit, consisting of the Shenzhen, China’s newest Luhai-class guided missile destroyer at the time, and the Nancang supply ship to Africa in July 2000 (People’s Daily, May 29, 2000). A 2002 naval ship visit by a fleet composed of a guided missile destroyer, the Qingdao, and a supply ship, the Taicang, included Egypt (People’s Daily, June 18, 2002).

2. Chinese Bilateral Security Consultations. Between 2001 and 2006 China conducted 110 bilateral security-related meetings and consultations. The number of biannual bilateral defense-related talks jumped from 33 between 2003 and 2004, to 46 during 2005 and 2006. Despites this overall increase, South Africa is the only African country that holds security consultations with China [6]. South Africa and China initiated the Meeting of the Sino-South African Defense Committee on April 2003 in Pretoria, where Xiong Guangkai, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, represented the Chinese. Since then, South Africa and China have had three subsequent meetings that have alternated between South Africa and China. The most recent meeting was held in December 2006 in Pretoria.

3. Joint Exercises. Between August 2005 and December 2006, China conducted Joint Military Exercises (including maritime search and rescue and counter-terrorism scenarios) with India, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the United States. No African states have yet been included in the Joint Exercises with China, either bilaterally or multilaterally.

4. Peacekeeping Operations. China has participated in United Nations PKOs since 1990 [7]. As of March 2007, China ranked 13th as a contributor of military and police to UN missions worldwide. Its support includes 1,572 troops, 63 military observers and 174 police. During this same period, Pakistan ranked first with over 10,000 personal; the United States ranked 43rd [8]. China’s largest contributions include the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (343), and three of the six African PKO missions:

United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) – Established in March 2005 to support the implementation of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. It was expanded in August 2006 to include the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement. UNMIS provides some humanitarian assistance, as well as protection and promotion of human rights. China contributes 446 out of the 8,766 soldiers, 9 of the 662 police, and 14 of the 599 military observers.

United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) – Established in April 2004 to facilitate the implementation of the peace agreement signed by Ivorian parties in January 2003. China contributes seven out of the 200 military observers. UNOCI also includes 7,854 soldiers and 1,187 police.

United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) – Established in September 2003 to support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it protects UN staff, facilities and civilians; supports humanitarian and human rights activities; and assists in national security reform, including national police training and the formation of a restructured military. China contributes 565 out of the13,841 soldiers, 18 of the1,201 police and three of the 214 military observers.

United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) – Established in November 1999 to support the implementation of the Lusaka Accord, its current mission is to carry out disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration (DDRRR). The final phase of its mission, concurrently in process, is to facilitate transition to “credible” elections. China contributes 218 out of the 16,594 soldiers and 12 of the 713 military observers. The mission also has 1,029 police.

United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) – Established in July 2000 to verify the ceasefire agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, brokered by Algeria and the Organization of African Unity. China contributes seven out of the 202 military observers. The mission also has 1,594 soldiers.

United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) – The mission was set up in September 1991 to monitor the ceasefire between the Government of Morocco and the Frente Polisario, and to organize and conduct a referendum on the territory’s status. The UN mandate was recently extended until October 2007 [9]. China contributes 13 out of the 195 military observers. MINURSO also includes 28 soldiers and 6 police.

Other Chinese Military Activities in Africa

China’s military-military activities in Africa also include working level professional contacts, such as military aid and assistance to local militaries in the form of “donations” and technical support, training, and exchanges; arms sales related support; and professional education. Military cooperation in Africa has almost exclusively focused on bilateral cooperation, but in 2003, China participated in a multilateral military environmental protection conference hosted by South Africa, which may indicate a future direction for multilateral military engagement in selected areas [10].

Potential for an expanded Chinese military role in the future

China’s military-to-military activities in Africa, including defense attaché presence, naval ship visits, arms sales, and other missions to support military cooperation can be expected to expand to keep pace with China’s growing national interests throughout the region. An increase in its diplomatic military representation and overall presence may inadvertently be encouraged by the establishment of the new United States Africa Combatant Command, if China feels a new combatant command impinges on China’s security interests in the region.

If China’s limited number of defense attaché offices in Africa do grow, the potential list of countries would likely begin among the eleven that have already established offices in Beijing, but lack a reciprocal counterpart in Africa, as discussed above. Resource access and associated security needs would likely influence any expansion of China’s defense attaché offices in Africa. Four of the six countries that China currently maintains reciprocal, resident defense attaché offices with—Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and Sudan—are among those countries that China has interests in petroleum and other resources. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, who are among the main producers of petroleum in Africa and already have established defense attaché offices in Beijing, would be logical additions to China’s resident defense attaché offices.

Military and naval ship visits are also expected to develop. China may enter into agreements with African countries beyond South Africa to establish bilateral defense consultations, and joint exercises under the framework of anti-terrorist or maritime safety scenarios could be an outcome of China’s increased military capability and overall interest in Africa.

Finally, China will increasingly be challenged to respond to security threats to Chinese property and personnel in the region that may necessitate a re-evaluation of the role of China’s military. The recent kidnappings and killings of Chinese workers in Ethiopia and Nigeria painfully demonstrated that China can no longer depend upon local security forces to protect its oil interests (personnel and facilities) in areas such as Ethiopia and the Niger Delta. Potential attacks by local insurgents, criminals, and even terrorists, demand skilled defense practitioners. The PLA could provide this either directly and openly in tailored military units with or without Chinese police force participation, through quasi-military or “outsourced” rent-a-soldier security entities that would be manned by trained soldiers who may retain loose association with the PLA as demobilized soldiers, or through other mechanisms based on negotiations with the host African countries.

Implications of Chinese military presence in Africa for the U.S.

While China’s military-to-military contacts with Africa have been quite modest, anxiety over China’s activities in Africa exceeds the present extent of military activities for several reasons. Among these are questions about China’s future military capabilities and its intentions in the region. China’s arms sale practices, particularly to Sudan, demonstrate its willingness to look the other way when sovereign states commit genocide and persecution of its citizenry, if it serves China’s national interests – in this case, access to oil. Even as China has responded to international pressure to nudge the Sudanese regime toward the settlement of the Darfur crisis, it is woefully late. Furthermore, China’s newfound support for the resolution of the Darfur tragedy may be short-lived and ineffective, merely a tactical move to counter the bad press that could overshadow the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. There is certainly no indication China will fundamentally reassess its indiscriminant arms sale practices in Sudan.

Although China is not alone in placing its national interests and growing demand for resources above the interests of African states, China’s modern self-identity as a leader of the developing world moralistically insists it could never exploit weaker states. As its power and wealth grow, however, China will be increasingly judged for its actions.

The implications for United States interests in Africa need not lead to a confrontational competition in response to China’s growing military profile. There is plenty of work to do in Africa, and the Africans themselves will ultimately decide what courses to follow. China has a constructive role to play in Africa and provides both a useful model for the successful modernization of a developing country, and also has a long-standing relationship, including military-to-military contacts, with many nations on the continent. The United States and others will do well to continue to press China on issues of concern, such as Darfur, but also to look for opportunities to work bilaterally and multilaterally with China and its military in the region.

Colonel Susan M. Puska (retired) is a former U.S. Army Attache. She currently works for Defense Group, Inc., in Washington, D.C.


1. “China’s African Policy,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa, January 2006, available online at [accessed July 13, 2006].

2. For the high end of this estimate, see Peter Brookes and Ji Hye Shin, “China’s Influence in Africa: Implications for the United States,” Backgrounder, No. 1916, The Heritage Foundation, February 22, 2003. Estimates of 1,200 soldiers are based primarily on UN PKO statistics, as of March 2007, and an estimate of Chinese military attaché representation throughout the continent.

3. Information is accurate as of March 2007. Beijing Military Attaché Corps in Beijing, available online at [accessed April 29, 2007].

4. China’s National Defense in 2006, [accessed May 11, 2007]; Directory of PRC Military Personalities, October 2006; Kenneth W. Allen and Eric A. McVadon, China’s Foreign Military Relations, Report #32, The Henry Stimson Center, Washington, D.C., October 1999.

5. The 2004 and 2006 National Defense White Papers provide detailed information on China’s military-to-military activities by country and type of contact. Available online at

6. Among African countries, it is highly likely that China also conducts ongoing bilateral defense consultations with Sudan and, possibly Zimbabwe, as a minimum to support arms sales.

7. United Nations Peacekeeping, website: [accessed April 2007] and Appendix V, China’s National Defense in 2006, Information Office of the Sate Council of the People’s Republic of China, December 2006, Beijing.

8. Contribution statistics are accurate as of March 2007. Available online at [accessed April 24, 2007].

9. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1754 (2007) adopted by the Security Council on April 30, 2007.

10. Attendee List of the August 4-8, 2003 Military Integrated Environmental Management Conference is available online at

Appendix 1

Military High-Level Visits to Africa 2001-2006

PLA leaders, who visited Africa between 2001-2002 included:

– Minister of National Defense – Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria

– Deputy Chief of the General Staff – Tanzania (2), Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia, Lesotho, and Mozambique

– Chief, General Armaments Department – South Africa

– Political Commissar, General Armaments Department – Egypt

– Deputy Chief, General Political Department – Zimbabwe and Mozambique

– Political Commissar, Beijing Military Region – Sudan, Djibouti, and Zambia

– Political Commissar, Shenyang Military Region – Cameroon, Benin, and Gabon

– President, Academy of Military Sciences – Egypt

– Commander, Jinan Military Region – Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania

PLA leaders, who visited Africa between 2003-2004 included:

– Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission – Egypt and South Africa

– Chief of the General Staff – Tanzania (2), South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Namibia

– Deputy Chief of the General Political Department – Zambia and Uganda

– Commander, Air Force – Egypt, Sudan

– Political Commissar, Air Force – Egypt and Tanzania

– Political Commissar, Academy of Military Sciences – Egypt

– Political Commissar, General Logistics Department – Zambia, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe

– Assistant to Chief of the General Political Department – Tanzania and Egypt

– Commander, Lanzhou Military Region – Zambia and Angola

– Political Commissar, Nanjing Military Region – Ethiopia, Uganda, and Botswana

– Political Commissar, Jinan Military Region – Egypt

PLA leaders, who visited Africa between 2005-2006 included:

– Vice-chairman, Central Military Commission – Sudan

– Minister of National Defense – Egypt and Tanzania

– Deputy Chief of the General Staff, General Logistics Department – Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon

– Assistant Chief of the General Staff Department – South Africa

– Deputy Chief of the General Political Department – Egypt and Uganda

– Commander, Second Artillery – Algeria and Tunisia

– Commander, Nanjing Military Region – Ethiopia and Eritrea

– Political Commissar, General Armaments Department – Namibia and Algeria

– Political Commissar, Beijing Military Region – Egypt

– Political Commissar, Jinan Military Region – Togo, Benin, and Tanzania

– President, Academy of Military Sciences – Egypt and South Africa

– Political Commissar, National Defense University – Egypt, Tanzania, and Zambia