China’s interests in West Africa face growing terrorist threats, especially after its citizens and companies were subject to kidnappings and extortion operations during 2020. These developments coincide with the failure of French efforts to stop the expansion of terrorist organisations, and the tendency by the US to reduce its military presence in the region, while demands by Chinese companies are on the rise for a security role for China in protecting their interests in the African continent.

Triggers for China's security role in West Africa

  • Rising terrorist threats against Chinese nationals and companies in the region. There are nearly ten thousand companies and nearly one million Chinese citizens on the continent. Terrorist operations have caused losses to Chinese projects worth 20 billion US dollars. Those losses are likely to increase with the continued exposure of Chinese workers to many kidnappings, extortion incidents and ransom payments, as was the case in Nigeria between February and July 2020, not to mention piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.[1]
  • Protecting China's economic interests in the region, especially access to natural resources. Oil and minerals constitute nearly 83 percent of all of China’s African imports. The Chinese military industry depends on African minerals. That is why China has strived to strengthen its relations with countries such as Nigeria (oil), Gabon (oil), Guinea (bauxite), and Ghana (oil).[2]
  • Isolating Taiwan in accordance with the "One China" policy that aims to strip Taiwan of any African recognition of it. This policy prompted both Gambia and Burkina Faso to end their recognition of Taiwan.[3]
  • Increasing China’s military sales in the region. Nigeria and Ghana are the largest importers of arms from China in West Africa.[4] Those sales expanded in Cameroon, Chad, Ghana and Nigeria. Moreover, arms sales may serve as a bargaining chip for package deals to access natural resources.[5]

China’s policy mechanisms to enhance its security role in West Africa

  • Participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping efforts, in particular the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) where, as of July 2019, China ranked eleventh in terms of troop contribution to all UN missions. China is also the largest troop contributor among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).[6]
  • Military training programmes. For example, there are nearly fifty soldiers from Côte d’Ivoire who receive training in China annually, not to mention the joint military exercises, particularly the anti-piracy exercises with the Cameroonian navy, the exercises with the Ghanaian and Nigerian navies, in addition to the military scholarships provided by China to many West African countries, especially Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.[7]
  • Military diplomacy, especially the intensification of mutual military diplomatic visits and increasing the number of military attachés. China has increased the number of attachés in Africa to 27, including six in the ECOWAS countries, in addition to Cameroon and Chad. Countries of the region have ten military attachés in Beijing, in addition to military visits by the Chinese navy to seaports in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon,[8] especially that there are seven ports operated by Chinese entities on Africa’s western coast.[9]
  • Stepping up financial and logistics support to African regional organisations and enhancing their role in combating terrorism, especially the African Union (AU), through investing one hundred million dollars in the African Standby Force (ASF) and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), in addition to allocating part of the financing of the China-Africa Peace and Security Fund to strengthening the role of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram organisation. China has also provided nearly 25 million US dollars for military equipment for the AU's logistics base in Yaoundé, Cameroon.[10]

Opportunities of revitalizing China's security role in West Africa

  • New Chinese security trends, as the Chinese strategic and military thinking shifted to focus more on non-traditional security threats such as terrorism. This shift is closely related to East Asia and Africa in particular.[11]
  • Tactical cooperation with Russia, especially in the field of naval cooperation. In November 2019, the South African Navy hosted naval exercises with vessels from the Russian and Chinese navies, and held joint manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean, while China allowed Russian warships to use the pier at its military base in Djibouti.[12]
  • Inaugurating the China-Africa Defense and Security Forum (CADSF), which was hosted by Beijing for the first time in 2019,[13] and stressed the need to intensify the exchange of intelligence and enhance the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in protecting public security and combating terrorism, and developing an action plan (2019-2021) that includes providing military assistance to the AU and security efforts in the Sahel region and the Gulf of Guinea.[14]


  • Challenges of deploying Chinese military forces. While the Anti-Terrorism Law (of 2015) allows China to deploy military forces to combat terrorism abroad, Chinese capabilities continue to be limited due to challenges related to the financial burdens of financing such operations, and the fear that the military presence could lead to straining Beijing's diplomatic relations with countries in the region.[15]
  • Challenges of the heavy Western military presence in the region and China's modest contribution to building the military capabilities of the countries of the region compared to European partners. For example, the European Union (EU), through the Military Training Mission in Mali (EUTM), provided military training to nearly 10,000 personnel, that is one third of the Malian armed forces.[16]
  • Challenges associated with the flow of illicit Chinese arms. There are international accusations against Chinese suppliers of supplying illicit weapons to Africa.[17]
  • Challenges related to the quality of Chinese weapons. For example, in 2019, one of two Harbin Z-9 helicopters acquired by Mali from China crashed due to a technical fault, while the second was landed and is no longer operational.[18]

The future of China's security policy in West Africa

First scenario: supporting UN efforts by participating in peacekeeping missions and providing military and financial assistance to support counterterrorism efforts. In December 2019, the Chinese ambassador in Nouakchott announced that China would donate 7 million US dollars in military equipment to each member of the G5 Sahel, in an indication that China wants a specific and independent role. That is why China did not join the G5 Sahel coalition but pledged to provide more financial support to the joint force.[19]

Second scenario: Chinese-European counter-terrorism cooperation which was discussed in China's dialogue with the EU. However, China has not shown any great enthusiasm for such cooperation, as Beijing prefers to operate independently.[20]

Third scenario: the involvement in the region of Chinese security companies, which are already operating in a number of African countries. Chinese companies are calling for strengthening their role.[21] However, Chinese security companies continue to face many challenges, as some Chinese companies prefer to use Western security companies, and African countries continue to be reluctant to have Chinese security companies on their soil.[22]


China is likely to continue to pursue a multi-faceted approach to security issues in Africa, combining China's participation in UN-led peacekeeping operations with anti-piracy measures to highlight its position as an international power, and provide financial and logistical support to African regional organisations to enhance counter-terrorism efforts and African countries' capabilities to protect Chinese citizens.


[1] Eric Olander, "It’s Been a Violent Year for Chinese Workers in Africa", August 19, 2020, available at:

[2] David H. Shinn, "China in Africa", Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 8, 2020, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, p. 2.

[4] Tom Bayes, "China’s Growing Security Role in Africa: Views from West Africa, Implications for Europe," Berlin, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung E. V. 2020, available at:

[5] Gisela Grieger, Eulalie Claros, "China's growing role as a security actor in Africa", European Parliamentary Research Service, October 2019, p. 8.

[6] Ibid, p. 9.

[7] Tom Bayes, op. cit.

[8] Idem.

[9] Matthew Johnson :"China’s International Partnerships: Pan-African Cooperation", February 7, 2020, available at:

[10] Gisela Grieger, Eulalie Claros, op. cit, p. 5.

[11] Tom Bayes, op. cit.

[12] David H. Shinn, op. cit, p. 5.

[13] Matthew Johnson, op. cit.

[14] James J. McDonnell, "Cooperation, Competition, or Both? Options for U.S. Land Forces vis-à-vis Chinese Interests in Africa", Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 2020, p. 26.

[15] Christopher Spearin, "China’s Private Military and Security Companies: ‘Chinese Muscle’ and Reasons for US Engagement", Analysis, July 7, 2020, available at:

[16] Tom Bayes, op. cit

[17] Idem.

[18] Idem.

[19] Idem.

[20] Idem.

[21] Christopher Spearin, op. cit.

[22] Sergey Sukhankin, "Chinese Private Security Contractors: New Trends and Future Prospects", China Brief, Vol. 20, Issue 9, May 15, 2020, p.22


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