Chinese private security companies have found a profitable niche market in Africa: surveillance of Chinese executives and construction sites. They also secure Chinese ships at sea against piracy.
The growing presence of Chinese private security companies in Africa is part of a changing global security architecture.
These changes reflect the fact that the United States is no longer the sheriff of the world but its offshore safety balancer. America uses its strategic alliances and intervenes to protect its interests abroad only when necessary.
Today, regional recalibration is the name of the game.
The demand for Chinese security services in Africa has increased significantly since the launch in 2013 of the Belt and Road Initiative. This is the country’s plan for its engagement with the continent.
But private security companies have received less attention than the rise of private military companies and mercenaries like the Wagner Group.
The growth of China’s private security companies comes as Beijing increases its investment in major infrastructure projects in Africa. China is also investing in mining projects across the continent. However, in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, ongoing political unrest means government security services are lacking.
China’s dependence on these countries for its resources explains why it has become more concerned about security in Africa.
Read more: Peace and security in Africa: how China can help address weaknesses
This highlights the need for bilateral and multilateral agreements on the private security sector between China and African countries. They must agree on codes of conduct for monitoring, regulation and cooperation. Increased oversight of the industry, based on best practices, would also help prevent the growth of unregulated private security companies.
Failure to establish these regulations could result in negative fallout. Private security companies may abuse their authority or fail to operate under clear guidelines. It could also lead to irresponsible mercenaries and rogue foreign militias. This would affect African people and the viability of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The private security sector in Africa is characterized by three particularities.
First, the continent still carries the stigma associated with mercenary actions during post-colonial conflicts. The kind of heavily armed soldiers that have wreaked havoc over the past three decades may no longer be the norm. But the stigma persists.
Second, long before the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s emphasis on private security companies, several Chinese companies operating in Africa organized a sort of armed militia. These were established for protect Chinese interests criminal or political violence. These ranged from natural resource extraction to small businesses.
Third, Africa is witnessing the return of well-structured groups of international private military companies. These companies support local governments and international interests, such as The muscular return of Moscow to the African continent.
As a result, the expansion of China’s private security companies – and their implications for the mainland’s security landscape – has attracted less attention.
Read more: What does China’s role in Africa say about its growing global footprint?
Private security companies are not new to Africa. However, the Chinese are still settle down. In response to the increase in criminal and militant violence against Chinese individuals and overseas infrastructuretheir role ranges from securing fixed structures to high-tech surveillance.
Over the past decade, China has recognized that it is not enough to rely solely on the economic development of African countries to protect its workers and projects. Outbursts of violence and terrorist expansion from the Sahel to Somalia put Chinese workers and investments in the crosshairs.
China’s regulatory response
In 2018, the Chinese government developed a set of security rules for companies operating overseas. These are detailed in the Security Management Guidelines for Overseas Chinese-Funded Enterprises, Institutions and Personnel.
The document outlines training requirements, security assessments, and risk mitigation procedures. Companies, for example, must provide the Chinese government with risk assessments to get the green light to invest overseas. It also discusses procedures for sharing data and reporting on local security developments.
These guidelines have been welcomed by the dozens of Chinese private security firms that already operate effectively overseas. But it remains to be seen how the roughly 10,000 local Chinese companies with limited knowledge of international security requirements will perform if they want to work in Africa.
It is important to consider how Chinese private security companies interact with local government security forces and the substantial Chinese peacekeeping presence on the mainland.
Proper integration of foreign private security services will benefit host governments, especially as security threats increase. But, in China, it is not easy to know where the public ends and where the private begins. Checks and balances are needed to prevent private security companies from becoming tools of political pressure.
Read more: The Chinese approach to peace in Africa is different. How and why
As things stand, China’s private security companies are still evolving. This increases the likelihood of private companies moving overseas without adequate training, operational capabilities, or understanding of threats.
Prepared or not, Chinese companies are extension of the probes in African countries to establish security business partnerships. This has been observed in Mali, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania.
Unfortunately, the race for the cheapest contract still weighs down the internationalization of the Chinese security sector. To counter this, it is necessary to combine effective Chinese private security companies with local security providers.