China has dispatched four military delegations to sub-Saharan Africa in the last few months. Officially, the trips are to strengthen military cooperation between China and its African allies.
In reality, the trips signal China’s plan to increase its weapons sales. Once one regional player starts modernizing its weapons, others will be forced to follow suit. South Africa and the United Nations have worked to resolve the region’s conflicts. But China’s new policy—really intended to get the People’s Liberation Army out of the Chinese economy—threatens to create a miniature but destabilizing arms race in southern Africa.
Such an arms race could threaten one of the few sources of stability in the region: South Africa’s military superiority. Pretoria still has the upper hand, compared to other regional militaries. And South Africa has scaled down its troop numbers while modernizing its weaponry. In September 1999, South Africa spent $5 billion on high-tech, foreign-made weapons, including three new submarines, four warships, 40 helicopters and 28 fighter jets.
Small Deals A reported Aug. 14 PLA visit to Namibia is part of a pattern stretching back to May, when Chinese officers visited Angola and Botswana. Both missions resulted in bilateral agreements to strengthen military cooperation. In July, a group of Chinese warships made a landmark visit to the continent, calling on ports in South Africa and Tanzania.
These contacts appear to be aimed at achieving financial gain, not the geopolitical influence that Beijing sought in Africa during the Cold War. In a bid to counter both Moscow and Washington, Beijing supported rebel movements in Angola and Namibia and sold arms to Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Today, Beijing is looking to shift its military’s money-making away from China’s domestic industries and toward shipping arms abroad. Doing so will strengthen civilian Chinese leaders. Arms exports, after all, require government approval. They also satisfy the PLA’s need for revenues lost as it abandons domestic enterprises.
In Africa, the Chinese military is starting from scratch: looking to strike comparatively small deals, compared to the United States and Russia, in places without heavy competition. According to Chinese government statistics, the PLA has arms export deals with 22 countries in the world. Only two are in Africa. The structure of these deals can be novel. For instance, the PLA reportedly traded Kalashnikov rifles for eight tons of ivory, reported the London newspaper, the Sunday Times, on July 9.
Balance of Power Worries But the sale of even small amounts of arms can tip the balance of power and trigger a round of buying. In Namibia, for instance, the PLA sold at least four K-8 advanced training aircraft, according to a report by Republikein, a Namibian newspaper, on July 27. A two-seat jet aircraft capable of a speed of 590 miles per hour, the K-8 can also be configured as a light ground attack aircraft.
It is often equipped with a 23-millimeter gun under the fuselage, a self-computing optical gun sight and two hard points, for carrying bombs or rockets. Several countries, including Pakistan, use the jets in the ground attack and reconnaissance roles. Once Namibia places the jets into operation, others like Botswana will feel the need to buy these or similar aircraft.
All the regional players have a huge demand for small arms. Angola, Botswana and Namibia have increased their defense spending, and both Angola and Namibia are fighting major conflicts.
Luanda has doubled its troop numbers, from 60,000 in 1998 to 114,000, in its 25-year-old civil war against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Botswana used the bulk of its weapons budget to buy armored vehicles, heavy guns, small arms ammunition and stun grenades, reported the London daily the Financial Times on July 22.
And the flow of arms to the region threatens to prolong conflict—in opposition to South African, and international, attempts to tamp down Africa’s wars.