LONDON — Chinese weapons are an increasingly common sight in Africa. From the buyer’s point of view, they come with several advantages: They are relatively cheap and come with few of the strings attached to the purchase of Western gear.
For African governments facing tight defense budgets and chronic security threats, Chinese equipment has great appeal, particularly as it often comes as part of a broader package of trade and investment.
China has exported arms to Africa for decades, but they “were essentially legacy copies of Soviet-era systems,” said Bastian Giegerich, director of defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank. China took Soviet stalwarts and developed their own versions, with the Soviet T-54A tank becoming China’s main battle tank, the Type 59, and the MiG-21 rechristened the J-7, a fighter jet that has been sold across the continent.
Now things are changing. “We’re seeing China develop its more indigenous equipment and we’re now starting to see that being exported towards Africa,” said Joseph Dempsey, a research analyst with IISS, at the release of the think tank’s annual Military Balance report. About two-thirds of African countries use Chinese arms, IISS estimates, and the share is rising. Ten African nations have started buying equipment from China within the last 10 years, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Angola and Nigeria.
Drones versus insurgents
In January 2015, photos of an armed drone that had crashed in a field in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno found their way onto the Internet. A second crash was reported in June. The drone was identified as a CH-3, an armed version of earlier drones built by China Aerospace Science and Technology, a vast state-owned enterprise employing more than 170,000 people. A major contractor for China’s space program, the company also builds the Long March rockets that took China’s first taikonaut into space in 2003.
The Nigerian army is using drones in its fight against Boko Haram, an armed Islamist group that has declared a “caliphate” in the northeast of the country. Having acknowledged the use of armed drones, the army released a video in February showing a strike against what it called a Boko Haram logistics base. A series of explosions is shown as a voice intones, “We have a fireball. Right on target.” Nigeria has joined a small group of countries including the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Iraq and Pakistan using drone strikes against armed opponents.
China’s growing clout as a defense exporter follows years of double-digit budget increases at home. Between 2014 and 2015, its military spending jumped nearly 20% in real terms. It now spends more on defense than the U.K., France and Japan combined.
At last September’s parade commemorating the end of World War II, China displayed its military might to the world. Among the weapons sent rumbling through Tiananmen Square was the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, known as the “carrier killer” for its potential threat to aircraft carriers. The missile, if effective, complicates U.S. strategy in the Pacific. The parade “highlighted that advanced weapons are no longer the preserve of Western states,” said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS.
For all the high-tech weaponry on display in Beijing, for many African nations, affordability is a key part of the appeal. China is now “actually developing stuff especially for export, no longer for the domestic market,” said Dempsey of IISS, with equipment that has never been seen in China being used in Africa.
“China is one of the few countries producing new equipment for that kind of market at a reasonable cost,” Dempsey said. “While it may not be as capable as Western counterparts, it’s probably more appropriate for that environment. China, in that sense, fills a niche,” he said.
The K-8 jet trainer, built by Nanchang-based Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, can be found in air forces from Egypt to Zimbabwe. A variety of armored vehicles built by China North Industries Corp. are also popular with African militaries.
The appeal of Chinese equipment is increased by its inclusion in larger trade and investment deals. For analysts, the lack of transparency makes tracking the changes reshaping African armed forces difficult. “A lot of times we see something appearing and that’s the first indication we get of it,” said Dempsey.
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