Deploying Chinese Private Security Force in Africa

IITM CSC Article #20
16 April 2012

Deploying Chinese Private Security Force in Africa

China’s engagement in Africa has attained a lot of media attention recently in the light of reports of increasing threats to Chinese investment in Africa and the Chinese policy to deploy private security guards to ensure the safety and security of its investment. China places strategic importance on its relations with Africa. Currently China is one of the frontrunner with respect to trade and investment in infrastructure projects in Africa. This article analyses the changing dynamics of China-Africa relations considering China’s recent decision to employ private security guards and the subsequent impact of this decision on its engagement with African countries and the international community at large.

China’s policy of Peaceful Rise is exemplified in its employment of soft power in Africa. China’s major interest in Africa lies in the exploration and trade of oil, minerals and natural gas followed by the infrastructure development projects as a part of mutual development programme. As China’s role evolves from a trading partner to a financial aid donor to infrastructural developer in Africa, this changing relationship faces serious challenges. Reports of attacks on Chinese citizens who are working with Chinese companies in Africa are on the rise in the past one year. This has prompted China to think about a private security force to protect Chinese investments. During the recent Sudan hostage crisis, Chinese private security guards were involved in rescue operations along with the Sudanese forces.

This issue takes a serious turn as very large number of Chinese workers are employed in African countries and a considerable number of them are engaged in key infrastructure development projects in conflict zones like Sudan. The security vacuum created by the unstable political conditions of the host countries has strengthened the argument for the deployment of private security forces.

“Shandong Huawei”, is one of the major private security forces which have an “Overseas Service Centre”. On its website, the company says it recruits its personnel from among retirees of special police and military units and the People’s Armed Police. Huawei also specifically notes that its employees include men who have served tours in Iraq, likely former PAP who guarded China’s Ambassador to Iraq. Hence the possibility of People’s Liberation Army’s penetration into these private security groups is also undeniable. This could have a potential impact on the nature of Chinese engagement outside of Africa as well.

China’s decision to deploy private security force outside its territory has wider implications for the international community. One of the major concerns is the possible jurisdictional conflicts between the Chinese security forces and those of the individual countries where they are deployed. Though these private forces accompany Chinese investments and intend to protect China’s overseas interests, obligations of international law forbid unilateral actions of Chinese forces outside their own territory. However, increasing business demands more secure and safe environment to protect and promote Chinese overseas interests. 

Moving forward, China may have to change the nature of its engagement from the conventional understanding of trade and business relations to comprehensive association in both bilateral and multilateral engagement with African nations. Absence of local participation in infrastructural and industrial development has engendered both mistrust between locals in Africa and the Chinese workers and dissatisfaction among the local populations. China’s unilateral actions of using private security leads credence to the argument that China considers Africa as a source of  raw materials without enhancing or promoting indigenous capabilities. While the Influx of Chinese investments has created employment opportunities in Africa, unfair business tactics and negligence towards local communities have created a security vacuum for overseas Chinese citizens. The Chinese involvement in Africa can be productive only if it widens its interests and develops community based capacity building programmes which ensure local participation.Support of local population and policing authorities can be sought in order to guarantee the safety and security of the Chinese instead of importing Chinese security personnel to Africa.

Expanding the engagement from the institutional to the functional arena can address most of the challenges that the Chinese face in Africa. China may have to redefine its international strategy in order to better equip itself to tackle these emerging threats. “The Chinese government does not like to appear weak internationally, especially when it comes in the form of failing to protect the lives of those placed abroad by the state,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution. The African experience will be a litmus test for China, as China emerges as a global player and its actions in Africa will indicate how China would respond as a rising power and a responsible state.

R Veena,
Research Scholar, IITM
Friday, October 16, 2015 - 14:45
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