The demand for Chinese security services in Africa has increased significantly since the 2013 launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Private security companies have captured less attention than the rise of private military companies and mercenaries. These changes reflect the US moving away from being the world’s sheriff to its offshore security balancer.
China has become increasingly anxious about security in Africa, especially in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan where government security services are lacking. The growth of Chinese private security companies comes as Beijing increases its investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa. China is also investing in mining projects across the continent, which means it needs strong security to protect these assets.
China and African countries need to agree on codes of conduct for oversight, regulation and cooperation. Increased sector scrutiny, based on best practices, would also help prevent the growth of unregulated private security firms. Failing to establish these regulations could lead to negative spillovers. It could affect African populations and the viability of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Africa’s private security sector is characterised by three peculiarities. First, the continent still carries the stigma associated with post-colonial mercenaries. Second, well before the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, several Chinese companies operating in Africa organised a sort of armed militia. Third, Africa is witnessing the return of well-structured groups of international private military companies.
Private security companies are not new to Africa but the Chinese ones are still establishing themselves. In response to increasing criminal and militant violence against Chinese individuals and infrastructure abroad, their role is expanding from securing fixed structures to providing high-tech surveillance. China has recognised that sole reliance on the economic development of African countries isn’t enough to protect its workers and projects.
China’s regulatory response
In 2018, the Chinese government drew up a set of security regulations for companies operating overseas. The document outlines training requirements, security assessments and risk mitigation procedures. These guidelines have been well received among the dozens of Chinese private security companies already operating abroad. But it’s yet to be seen how the estimated 10,000 local Chinese companies with limited knowledge of international security requirements will operate if they want to work in Africa.
It’s critical to consider how Chinese private security firms interact with local government security forces and the continent’s large Chinese peacekeeping presence. Foreign private security services that are properly integrated will benefit host governments, especially as security threats rise. However, in China, it is difficult to distinguish between the public and private spheres. To keep private security firms from becoming political pressure tools, checks and balances are required.
As it stands, China’s private security firms are still evolving. This increases the likelihood of private firms expanding overseas without adequate training, operational capabilities, or a thorough understanding of the threats. Chinese companies are reaching out to African countries in search of security business partnerships. Unfortunately, the race for the cheapest contract continues to stymie China’s security sector’s internationalization.