What you need to know
While maintaining the facade of being an ally to Africa, China is exploiting coup-prone regions through lucrative activities such as coal mining and substantial oil extraction.
In August, military officers in Gabon placed the country’s president, Ali Bongo, under house arrest. This latest coup comes just weeks after the army ousted the president in Niger. Since 2020, there have been eight military coups in six African nations: in Mali in 2020 and again in 2021; in Guinea in 2021; twice in Burkina Faso in 2022; earlier this year in Sudan, when leaders of the 2020 coup turned on each other; in Niger in 2020 and 2023; and most recently in Gabon.
These nations share a number of similarities. They are all rich in minerals, but economically poor. Another commonality is that Chinese state-owned and state-backed firms are active within their borders. They have all participated in some form in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In terms of diplomatic ties, they all recognize the PRC, not Taiwan. Additionally, most have received Chinese loans. Furthermore, China has been selling weapons to African nations for years, but China’s largest weapons producer, state-owned China North Industries, known as Norinco, has now opened a sales office in Dakar, Senegal, to service the West African region. The company will now be supplying these, and future, coup leaders with arms. Norinco already has regional offices in Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa, while it has plans to open additional offices in other West African nations in the near future.
Moscow has long been the primary supplier of arms to Africa. However, the Ukraine War has impaired Russia’s ability to export weapons. Countries not aligned with Moscow or its proxy, the Wagner Group, had security contracts with France, the United Nations, or the U.S. But in many African countries, these contracts were ended and foreign troops were kicked out after a coup. This has created a window of opportunity which China is quick to capitalize on. For China, the move creates markets for its weapons exports, but also intensifies relations with coup leaders already ostracized from the Western-led rules-based order. China is always in need of minerals and the generals need cash and guns, so the relationship works for everyone involved. Only the common people will suffer, but Beijing is more concerned about expanding its influence than it is about human rights.
The frustration of coup leaders, common people, and international observers across Africa is that these countries, which rank among the world’s poorest, are very rich in natural resources. Coup leaders claim to be anticolonial forces, liberating their countries from European domination, taking control of natural resources, and sharing the wealth with the people. In practice, however, coup leaders rarely make good on such promises. After kicking out Western business partners and investors, they generally turn to China for concessionary loans. And China winds up controlling those nations’ mineral exports. Unlike Western lenders and investors, however, China does not demand a return to democracy.
Below is a description of China’s interests, investments, and military sales in each of the countries where coups recently took place:
Mali is estimated to have 800 tons of gold deposits, 2 million tons of iron ore, 5,000 tons of uranium, 20 million tons of manganese, 4 million tons of lithium, and 10 million tons of limestone. Beijing is interested in all of these minerals, and Chinese firms have already invested in the country’s lithium mines. The Malian military government recently purchased a large number of Norinco Lightweight Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles and Lynx CS/VP11 All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV).
Guinea holds some of the world’s richest bauxite and iron ore deposits, as well as gold and diamonds, graphite, manganese, nickel, and uranium. In 2017, China loaned the nation $20 billion to obtain concessions on bauxite and aluminum. Chinese extraction companies operating in the country include China Power Investment Corporation, Aluminium Corp of China, and China Henan International Cooperation Group. In 2023, China’s Baowu became one of several companies awarded the right to set up operations at Guinea’s Simandou Iron Ore mine, believed to be the world’s largest untapped high-quality reserve. The two countries have a relatively balanced trade relationship worth about $4.5 billion annually. Chinese security companies are active in Guinea, and the nation is a purchaser of Chinese weapons.
Burkina Faso is rich in a number of different natural resources, such as gold, zinc, copper, manganese, phosphate, limestone, diamonds, bauxite, nickel and vanadium. In 2018, when Burkina Faso broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan, China pledged $44 million in aid. Beijing has granted scholarships to the nation’s soldiers to attend military academies in China. The PRC has also provided the nation with some small arms, multiple rocket launchers, and recoilless rifles. Chinese investments include an optical fiber communications network as well as a security surveillance system. In July this year, Burkina Faso’s president met with China’s special representative for African Affairs, Liu Yuxi, to discuss strengthening security and economic ties between the two nations.
Sudan has petroleum, small quantities of gold, as well as iron ore, silver, copper, tungsten, mica, chromium ore, and zinc. Since 2005, China has invested $6 billion in the country in mining, energy, construction, and agricultural projects. China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) is an investor in the country’s oil industry and a joint owner of the Khartoum Oil Refinery. The two countries also have a significant amount of trade, with China running a trade surplus. In 2021, China’s exports to Sudan totaled $1.82 billion, while its imports were only $780 million. China has also been providing weapons to the Sudanese military, in spite of allegations of gross human rights abuses and atrocities committed in the Darfur Region. Playing both sides, Norinco has also been selling arms to South Sudan, which broke away from Sudan in 2011 after a civil war. CNPC has also been funding militias that protect its oil field investment in South Sudan.
Niger has large uranium deposits. China Gezhouba Group Co. is building an $808-million hydroelectric dam in the country, while CNPC’s PetroChina is backing the construction of a $4-billion oil export pipeline. In May, China’s Sinopec signed agreements with Niger’s government to work on additional oil and gas projects. Niger’s arms imports from China were negligible in 2022, amounting to only $253,000. But with Russian arms exports dwindling and with Norinco’s new regional office, Chinese weapons sales to Niger are expected to grow.
Gabon produces about 200,000 barrels of oil a day, in fields operated by France’s TotalEnergies and Anglo-French producer Perenco. The country also has manganese extraction, conducted by French miner Eramet. China is one of Gabon’s largest export partners, purchasing about half of its exports, accounting for $4 billion worth of commodities in 2022. China loaned money to Gabon for the completion of two hydroelectric dams and a 22-kilometer road project. In 2023, China upgraded its relationship with Gabon to “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” Aside from economics, Gabon is an attractive friend for the PRC because of its diplomatic power. Gabon is currently one of the ten non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, as well as the chair of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) on climate change. In those capacities, Gabon can help to further Beijing’s interests at the United Nations.
The Ukraine War is expected to negatively impact Russia’s relations with African nations as Russian arms exports grind to a halt, and its economic downturn cripples its ability to invest abroad. China will be quick to seize on opportunities as they arise, providing money and weapons to military governments, in exchange for natural resources and political support at the United Nations. Propaganda, spread online, is encouraging other African nations to stage coups and kick out French/Western forces and business partners. This will result in additional Western sanctions, creating further opportunities for China.
TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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