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  • Writer's pictureJemima Pentreath

Beijing's Bagmen: The Discreet Growth of Chinese PMCs

Written by Jemima Pentreath

Edited by Cameron Gale

 

Upon invoking the term "private military companies" (PMCs), the immediate association often gravitates towards Russia's Wagner Group. Yet, in the shadow of Wagner's more public rise and the international spotlight it commands, there has been a quieter, albeit significant, evolution taking place with Chinese private military companies. These organisations are gradually carving out a niche for themselves, particularly on the African continent.

A Beijing aligned PMC (Source: Navoine.info)

Unlike the higher-profile operations of their Russian counterparts, the Chinese PMC's expansion has been characterised by a discreetness and a far more limited mission to solely safeguard Chinese assets and interests in Africa. Unlike Moscow or Washington's more operationally aggressive operators, China is keen to differentiate their PMC's by suggesting they adhere to a distinct ethical and operational code.


These statements all appearing at a time when the future of the Wagner Group remains mired in uncertainty, and anti-colonial sentiments have been growing with the region, so Beijing is now seeking to exploit this new window of opportunity as a springboard into Africa.


China's Growing Interest in Africa?


Since its unveiling in 2013, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has significantly amplified Chinese engagement across Africa, marking a new era of economic expansion and strategic influence for Beijing. This ambitious venture has seen the relocation of over 1 million Chinese citizens to the continent, complemented by the establishment of approximately 10,000 Chinese firms as reported by McKinsey & Co. in 2017. The National Bureau of Statistics of China further noted that Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) reaped $51 billion in revenue from their BRI-related projects within the same year.


By 2020, China had outpaced France, Italy, and the United States combined in the volume of construction projects in Africa.


However, despite the substantial investment flowing from Beijing into numerous African states, the BRI has not been without its detractors. With numerous criticisms being centred around allegations of creating 'debt traps' for host countries and a preference for employing Chinese over local labour for the execution and management of its projects. The initiative also predominantly operates in regions classified as medium- to high-risk, leading to an uptick in violent incidents targeting Chinese nationals, this trend underscoring the growing security dilemma for Beijing.


By some estimates, just between the years of 2002 and 2019, these regions involved with BRI investments have witnessed 140,000 "terrorist attacks", resulting in 234,000 fatalities, with the Chinese Ministry of State Security recorded 350 serious security incidents involving Chinese enterprises between the years of 2015 and 2017. A poignant illustration of these risks occurring in March 2023 when nine Chinese nationals working at a gold mine in the Central African Republic were tragically killed, spotlighting the perilous conditions for Chinese workers in volatile areas.


What are Chinese PMCs Doing in Africa?


Despite the Chinese government's formal stance against external interventions, the landscape of private military and security enterprises currently coming out of China tells a different story.


Just in the last few years over 5,000 Chinese private military and security companies have been registered, with upwards of 20 of these firms offering international services.


These entities deploy more than 3,200 personnel to provide security and logistical support in regions as varied as Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan. However, the opacity surrounding the full roster and operations of these Chinese PMC's suggests that the actual number active abroad might significantly exceed the official count.


Beijing has obviously been taking some notes from Moscow's playbook when it comes to their operating of PMCs, as while these PMCs are officially registered as completely private companies, the Chinese state maintains a holding share in all security firms. This means that these companies tend to operate with the support and tacitly under the direction of the Chinese government, with most of these firms also most often staffed by ex-People’s Liberation Army officers. Much like Wagner's model, this operating structure blurs the boundary between the state and private sector, leading to these security firms becoming quasi-government security actors that work for the Chinese state and its interests, with an unclear chain of command for responsibility.


Where China's PMCs Differ From Russia's

In contrast to entities like the Wagner Group, which provides services across a broad client base, Chinese PMCs primarily focus on safeguarding Chinese ventures, particularly those associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. Their mandate is predominantly to ensure the safety of these projects and their personnel.



Chinese PMCs During a Training Excercise (Source: The Africa Center for Strategic Studies)

Among the prominent Chinese PMCs operating in Africa, Beijing DeWe Security Service and Huaxin ZhongAn Security Group stand out, employing a staggering 35,000 contractors across numerous BRI-affiliated countries, including 50 African nations. In Kenya, for instance, DeWe oversees the security of the $3.6 billion Mombasa-Nairobi-Naivasha Standard Gauge Railway with a workforce of approximately 2,000. Additionally, DeWe has also been entrusted by Beijing with the security of a $4 billion natural gas project in Ethiopia on behalf of China’s Poly-GCL Petroleum Group Holdings.


Other significant players in the sector, such as Overseas Security Guardians and China Security Technology Group, who command a workforce of 62,000, are tasked with protecting BRI endeavours in areas fraught with conflict. Notably, China Security Technology Group—a conglomerate of five companies—specialises in securing crucial land and maritime routes, including strategic points like the Gulf of Guinea, the Aden corridor, and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, underscoring the critical role of these PMC's in China's global strategy.



Comparitive Chart of Chinese PMCs (Source: Merics https://merics.org/en/report/guardians-belt-and-road)-

What Does the Future Hold for these Chinese PMCs


China is attempting to strategically navigate its presence within Africa, striving to maintain a level of protection for its holdings on the continent while attempting to avoid any "neo-colonial" labels. This cautious approach explains why Chinese PMCs have been primarily tasked with almost exclusively safeguarding Chinese-led projects, and usually avoid interfering in host nations' domestic security affairs whenever possible.


Despite these precautions though, Chinese security personnel have already seen themselves becoming embroiled in controversies, including incidents in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Uganda, involving unauthorised military activities and possession of military-grade equipment on foreign soil.


Beijing has been reportedly quite desperate to avoid becoming more entangled in these countries' wider domestic security issues, or have the local populations redirect political frustrations onto Beijing. China is gambling that as the global competition for natural resources intensifies, China's growing clout, and now pre-established security institutions here in resource-rich Africa, provide a launchpad for further financial expansions into the region. This approach hopefully not only strengthening China's hold over critical resources but also capitalising on challenges to the West's and Russia's influence here on the continent.


The question now, is whether China will continue with this policy of only concerning themselves with BRI-aligned projects, or whether Beijing seeks to sink further into the perpetual security quagmire present within these regions?


 

Jemima Pentreath is a political researcher at the Red Line. Jemima is also an International Relations undergraduate at Exeter University, specialising in Great Power politics and interactions between the US, Russia, and China.

 

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