China is using an aggressive approach of employing Private Security Companies (PSCs) to mitigate the security risks for Chinese nationals in Africa. These PSCs are armed with sophisticated weapons and surveillance systems. Why is it a cause for concern for India?
The Chinese Private Security Companies increase China's power of surveillance in the sub-Saharan Africa.
In March 2023, it was reported that 9 Chinese nationals at a mining site were killed by armed men in the Central African Republic (CAR). The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, had called for “severe punishment” for the perpetrators of the crime. More recently in April 2023, Beijing warned Islamabad that “future attacks on Chinese nationals working on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects will have an adverse impact on their all-weather friendship.” These two incidents shed light on a larger pattern that has emerged as a major security concern for Beijing - that Chinese nationals working abroad are not safe. While the first instinct for anyone reading this would be to feel concerned, China, in finding a solution to this problem, seems to have struck upon a rather subtly aggressive idea - private security companies (PSCs). The use of PSCs, while allowing China to protect its projects & nationals abroad, has also allowed it to project power and exercise plausible deniability as it continues to expand its ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, fraught with serious allegations of imposing debt-traps and human rights violations, China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) has been garnering severe criticism across the globe, and for right reasons too. With this in mind, the use of PSCs by China in Africa demands deeper scrutiny. At the same time, with India readying itself to expand its developmental plans in Africa and assume a greater role in geopolitics, New Delhi must exercise vigilance and caution against Beijing’s increasing use of PSCs.
China & Its Tryst With PSCs Sergey Sukhankin, in his brilliant report for Jamestown Foundation, dates the history of Chinese PSCs to the biaoju culture (security/armed escort) which developed during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (960–1644). He notes that “these entities were primarily involved in services associated with providing armed escorts to merchants and ensuring safety of goods as well as property.” Later, post the market reforms of 1984 under Mao Zedong, PSCs re-emerged under the auspices of the Public Security Bureau (PSB), Sukhankin notes. Cut to the 21st century, a study by Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) puts the number of Chinese PSCs operating domestically at 7000, and PSCs operating abroad at 20 with a staff of over 3200. These numbers are an evidence of strong importance that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attaches to the use of PSCs. The use of PSCs by nations is not a new concept. The United States has long employed notorious groups like Blackwater (now Academi) and such others to protect its nationals, embassy workforce, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deployments across the globe. But what are China’s motivations to employ such PSCs, especially abroad? And why is Africa the choice of region for China in this regard? It is worthy to note that as of 2023, Beijing’s total investment in Africa stands at $155 billion,
with the majority of investments going to the infrastructure sector. With such huge amounts of money being pumped by China into Africa, Beijing understands the risks that come with working in a region like this - extremism, terrorism, ethnic strife, and separatism. To effectively mitigate these risks, the use of PSCs seems like an obvious choice, especially when China has had a booming domestic market for the same since decades. The BRI project has been the cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s strategy since he took over the reins of CCP in 2012. While primarily a geoeconomic strategy, BRI also has geopolitical and geostrategic connotations to it that Xi understands well. Touting BRI as a “Marshall Plan with Chinese characteristics” and with the ambition of establishing a new World Order with China at its center, Xi recognizes the potential that PSCs can serve in securing these investments. Plus, they provide deniability (both to the domestic audience and for geopolitical purposes), and navigating legal constraints. Acknowledging the examples of US’s PSCs is a must here. At the same time, these PSCs are about something more than just these advantages - they allow a nation to project power in the most subtle, yet aggressive ways. Armed with the most sophisticated weapons and systems, these PSCs are fully capable of conducting surveillance in a foreign land. Moreover, Chinese PSCs are also known to have conducted training drills and workshops for host nations - Afghanistan is a key example here. It is only a logical deduction to say that in carrying out these activities, these PSCs also manage to create an intricate network in the host country that comprises its ruling elite and other powerful individuals and groups. Even if one were to argue that these PSCs are not indulging in anything illegal, the sheer size of the network and capability they possess, provides a massive advantage to them. This is where the catch is - Sukhankin makes a brilliant point about the CCP that it has always believed in the motto of “the Party controls the gun”. Plus, it is common knowledge that CCP exercises control over every major Chinese entity that operates domestically or abroad. With these Chinese PSCs expanding their presence in Africa, one can well imagine the advantage that Beijing has in the region and the huge leverage that it can utilize as a result of the same. It can pressurize nations in Africa that are caught under debt traps. It can affect domestic policy changes in the host countries that are more advantageous to Beijing. This is where mentioning a key Chinese PSC in Africa is extremely important - the Frontier Services Group (FSG). Frontier Services Group (FSG), “a leading provider of integrated security, logistics, insurance, and infrastructure services for clients operating in frontier markets”, has become the one-stop shop for China in the last few years to protect its nationals in conflict zones across the world. Founded by Erik Prince (yes, you heard that right), the FSG also boasts of overseeing China’s biggest private military training school - the International Security Defense College. Erik Prince is the same man (or the US Navy SEAL) who founded Blackwater (now Academi) and was involved heavily in the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East at large as a part of Blackwater's million dollar government projects. Known to have been extremely close to the serving US Presidents at the time, the same man has now been at the forefront of the Chinese PSC industry. While he has moved on from his role at FSG, it still begs the question - how much does China know as a result of its collaboration with Prince? In 2018, a former associate of Prince at FSG was reported as saying that “Erik is setting himself up to offer military-style security service for the power projection of China globally.” Another colleague of Prince at FSG, retired Navy Admiral William J. Fallon, who also served as the Head of the US Central Command, admitted that while FSG’s work at first was only restricted to logistics, he began to worry when he found out that “Prince had directed two of the company’s crop dusters — small planes that FSG rented out to governments so they could keep watch on trouble spots — to be modified so they could be armed with guns, rockets or Hellfire missiles. The modified planes were intended for use by the government of Azerbaijan in its decades-old conflict with ethnic Armenians”. It is safe to say that these revelations are enough for one to understand that PSCs and their use by CCP across the globe, and more specifically Africa, is not just aimed at protecting its nationals but also has a lot to do with power projection and exercising influence to push forth BRI and ultimately establish the supremacy of CCP. It is an effective maneuver by China in gray zone operations that will have far reaching consequences for all the stakeholders involved - the African nations themselves, India, and the US. Implications for India & Way Forward India shares deep historical and civilisational links with Africa that have served as a solid foundation for the relations to develop further in the 21st century in the form of South-South Cooperation. As of 2022, India’s bilateral trade with Africa reached $89.5 billion with New Delhi becoming Africa’s 4th largest trading partner. Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Minister, had also stressed in an address in 2022 about the triad of health, digital and green growth as being the focus areas of India-Africa partnership. India also championed medical assistance of $5 million to 25 African countries, and 39.65 million doses of Made In India Covid vaccines to 42 African countries. With such a strong relationship with the African continent that is bound to expand in coming years, both in terms of geoeconomics and geopolitical considerations, it is extremely important for India to watch the activities of Chinese PSCs in Africa. It is safe to argue that Chinese PSCs have the capability to effectively block India’s access to resources and projects in Africa since Beijing will have a competitive advantage over New Delhi in this regard. Closer Chinese relationships with the ruling elite, stronger diplomatic ties, and preferential treatment can prove to be detrimental for Indian interests in Africa. Moreover, Chinese PSCs operating in Africa raise security risks for Indian nationals working there and thus, can hinder the implementation of projects by New Delhi. To navigate these challenges and mitigate the impact of Chinese PSCs on India's activities in Africa, India needs to emphasize the principles of transparency, accountability, and sustainability in its engagements with Africa that will help differentiate its approach and foster stronger relationships with African nations. At the same time, through enhanced diplomatic engagements, New Delhi should make sure that our nationals working there are protected at all times. It is worthy to note here that India has a major advantage - it enjoys far more trust and goodwill than China in Africa. Using it to our advantage will lead to a win-win situation for both India and Africa.