When a Chinese military delegation visited Harare in 2011 to share experiences with Zimbabwean forces, president Robert Mugabe, who was also commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, lavished praise on China.
“They have assisted us in our struggle to free ourselves from colonialism,” he said. “China is a great friend of ours in many ways.”
Mugabe was deposed five years ago but Zimbabwe remains Africa’s key destination for Chinese military assistance, according to a study published last month.
“Zimbabwe is perhaps the most long-standing African recipient of security force assistance (SFA) from China”, two senior researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Ilaria Carrozza and Nicholas Marsh, said in the study, which was published in the Journal of Global Security Studies.
China provided military training to members of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, which was led by Mugabe, during its fight for liberation. Those trained included President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power five years ago following the coup that ousted Mugabe.
“This provision of support helped seal a security relationship between China and the leadership of Zimbabwe which continues to this day,” the study said.
Security force assistance included donations, typically of military equipment and training, that aimed to enhance the capacity of a recipient’s security forces, Carrozza said.
Zimbabwe has been cut off from global capital markets in the two decades since the United States and other Western nations imposed sanctions on Harare over human rights violations and the seizure of land from white farmers, leaving Beijing as the main financier of infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams, airports and roads.
The study said China had provided nearly all African countries with millions of dollars’ worth of security force assistance as Beijing sought to strengthen relations with the continent and protect its economic interests.
It said China had provided military assistance to 47 African countries in the past two decades, with Zimbabwe and Angola being the top recipients of military arms and training. Beijing also aided the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Economic Community of West African States Standby Force.
China’s total spending on security force assistance to African countries between 2015 and 2020 was around the US$25 million a year it pledged to the African Union in 2015, the study said.
“Angola is also a long-standing recipient of Chinese military assistance, having received it more or less regularly from at least 2004 to 2018, mostly consisting of the training of Angolan armed forces, senior police officers and the provision of IT equipment,” the study said.
It said that assistance was consistent with China’s long-time engagement with Angola and its national reconstruction programme as a way to ensure closer relations with the Angolan government and access to oil.
China may also have provided military assistance to four other African nations – Egypt, Chad, Lesotho and Morocco – the study said, which would have taken the total to 51, but the researchers found no evidence of such assistance to another four African Union member states – eSwatini, Libya, the Sahrawi Republic and Somalia – between 2000 and 2020.
The researchers said Burkina Faso had only received Chinese security force assistance since 2019, one year after the country switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing after years of pressure.
“We observe a similar pattern in other countries that recently switched diplomatic recognition: Gambia was granted training slots in China in 2018, while Sao Tome and Principe received training and equipment after 2018 to combat maritime piracy,” the study said.
China has contributed troops to the UN stabilisation mission in Mali and Mali also appears to be the Sahelian country that has received the most security force assistance from China – around US$27 million since 2012. China has also granted US$7 million to each of the G5 Sahel Joint Force members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The report comes amid growing concerns in Washington that China is using its security force assistance to advance its foreign policy goals.
“Through our analysis of hundreds of openly available official documents and media articles, my co-author Nic Marsh and I found that China uses SFA to pursue a strategy of economic alignment in Africa,” Carrozza said.
But she said China had not attempted to become the predominant security force assistance provider or replace more traditional providers, such as the US and several European states.
“While SFA provided by China is mainly motivated by economic interests and does not at present seem to challenge the US and its allies, its provision of SFA might have unintended consequences, including an increasing fragmentation of African security forces that receive training from several different providers,” Carrozza said.
Some of the security assistance provided by China appears to be directly related to protecting Chinese investments.
“Seychelles received transport aircraft and a patrol boat to be used in counter-piracy roles, and in Kenya police were provided with training to protect a railway financed and built by Chinese companies,” the study said.
The researchers said China’s donation of mainly non-lethal equipment was striking because the US had a long history of donating major weapons to its friends and allies to bolster their armed forces.
“We assume that China has not done so because it is concerned that donations would undercut its commercial arms exports,” the study said. “If so, it will have prioritised its economic interests over the influence gained from donating high-value weapons systems.”
David Shinn, an expert on China-Africa relations at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said most of China’s military aid to Africa had been modest in dollar terms. But it had been widespread and dated back to the time of Mao Zedong.
“Grant military aid is a relatively inexpensive way to maintain close relations with African armies, navies and air forces,” Shinn said. “The military is an important centre of power in most African countries and the centre of power in some.
“The funding provided to the African Union and African regional organisations contributes to peacekeeping efforts and has the effect of enhancing China’s relations with those organisations.”
However, Shinn said China’s military relationship with African countries had mostly been in the form of sales and not aid.
“Interestingly, China’s sales of conventional military weapons to Africa peaked in 2016, reached a low point in 2019, and have been rising gradually since,” he said.
Stephen Chan, a professor of politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said China was far from alone in providing security force assistance to African countries.
He said the United Kingdom, for instance, had long been active in trying to do the same, and had conducted joint exercises on the ground with African forces. China had not done that but it had exercised at sea with the South African Navy, Chan said.
“Its assistance to AMISOM was much needed as African Union intervention was very under-equipped,” he said. “And, of course, China was active in assisting the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. There is a long history there.
“Overall, however, military aid is just one aspect of a multi-aspect Chinese approach to Africa. It means very little in itself, except it allows China to keep up with other metropolitan powers doing exactly the same.”