China’s True Intentions in Congo

China’s re-entrance in the Democratic of Republic of Congo (DRC) has been one of superlatives. It has astounded international public opinion by announcing unprecedented investments in the country’s mining sector. Chinese imports from Congo expanded from merely US$1 million in 2000 to US$1.6 billion in 2008, making it the DRC’s largest export market. International officials have been even more surprised by the rapidity with which Beijing has befriended the ruling Congolese political elite. However, Beijing has also unleashed a military charm offensive to protect its newly gained assets. The creeping militarization of the Sino-Congolese relations and the lack of transparency will not only undermine stability in the heart of Africa, but will also cause distrust among Africa’s other partners.

Despite these successes, the last few years were also embued with important lessons for China’s policy making towards the African republic. Its economic operations have been complicated by rampant corruption from the lowest local official level to the presidential palace. In 2007, the governor of Katanga instructed to halt the export of unprocessed ores, mainly by Chinese firms. In 2008, 150 members of the national parliament went on strike against when the minister of mining came to explain his US$9 billion mining deal with Beijing. China took another punch when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced President Kabila to revise this contract in exchange for US$11 billion USD of debt relief.

If that were not enough, Chinese citizens fell prey to unpredictable outbursts of violence in the eastern part of the country. In Katanga, owners of mining companies have been confronted with growing frustration about harsh working conditions. In 2007, renegade General Laurant Nkunda accused the Chinese of exploitation. In October 2009, heavily armed gunmen opened fire on a mining project of Sinohydro in the Province of North Kivu. This forced the company to withdraw most of its personnel and material.

These challenges seem to have been acknowledged by the government. Its Embassy in Kinshasa has repeatedly stressed the need for Chinese investors to pay attention to labour conditions and to pay fair wages. Beijing also gave in to the demand to hire more Congolese workers for construction projects, rather than only deploy Chinese labourers. Chinese officials have informally reached out to parliamentarians of opposition parties and representatives of the civil society. Aid is slightly diversified away from megalomanic construction projects to address social needs like healthcare and education. This indicates that the Chinese want to muster the support of the Congolese people.

Yet, at the same time, the Chinese government has stepped up its support for the political centre to repress violent contingencies. Chinese military aid to Congo is nothing new, but China now provides the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) with more frequent donations of military equipment. In 2004, it delivered trucks and other vehicles, backed up by a concessional loan. China also increased its military representation in Kinshasa, which now counts three military attachés. In 2008, an agreement was signed for setting up an ambitious military training programme. In May 2009, at least seventy tons of military equipment for the FARDC were discharged in the port of Matadi.

On November 21, 2009, the Congolese national television reported that the Chinese Ambassador and the Congolese Minister of Defense had signed a new agreement for the supply of military equipment. This deal was passed only one month after the Chinese Defense Minister invited his homologue Charles Mwando Simba for a tour in China, where Simba visited several PLA units, Congolese students at the Defense University, as well as companies like Xinxing, Catic, Norinco and ZTE. At the end of the journey, China announced that it would grant a new package of 1.5 million USD in military aid to Congo.

Military commerce is certainly one of China’s motivations. Its emerging defense industry considers the developing world as its main export market. In the case of Congo, China clearly does not want to subjugate itself to UN restrictions. In 2008, the Security Council adopted a resolution that abolished the arms embargo against the FARDC but instructed states to provide “all relevant information” about arms shipments or training activities. China has to a large extent neglected this resolution and only acknowledged that such activities take place.

Maintaining close links with the regular armed forces serves other purposes, as well. The Chinese government has requested the FARDC to fence off mining sites. During riots in Katanga, such support proved to be indispensable. The FARDC intervened when fire was opened on Sinohydro workers Béni, North Kivu. It also keeps a close eye on the road construction project in South Kivu.

Chinese peacekeepers have also maintained close relations with the FARDC. The People’s Republic of China has dispatched more than two hundred blue helmets in Bukavu, South Kivu. Engineers of the MONUC peacekeeping operation refurbished the FARDC’s barracks in Camp Saio near Bukavu. They also built two FARDC camps in Luberizi, near to the border with Burundi. Chinese and Congolese military officers in the region have fraternized and have their own regular bilateral meetings to discuss the security situation. PLA and FARDC soldiers reportedly also appeared together around sites of the Chinese Bukavu-Kasongo road construction project.

Such posturing does not come as a surprise to us; it is expected that a country will try to protect its interests overseas, and China is no exception. The problem, however, is that it bets on a highly unreliable partner. The FARDC remains to be a key spoiler in the pacification of East Congo. China’s visible reliance on it for repressing unrest undermines its efforts to win the hearts of the Congolese people. Also problematic is the lack of coordination with other external stakeholders. True, the Chinese contingent is making an important contribution to the MONUC operation, but its communication with European countries or the United States is almost negligible.

This all adds to the perception that China is not genuinely interested in helping address the root causes of the security problems in Congo such as official corruption, the lack of tangible economic benefits for the Congolese people and the predatory behaviour of the FARDC. It suggests that it is not going give up its pragmatic mercantilism and that its own “harmonious society” principles do not apply to its behaviour in other countries. China also leaves other external stakeholders like the European Union grappling with the question of why it does not want to explore options for collectively promoting political stability and sustainable economic development. Is it because China does not want to hurt President Kabila’s pride? Is it because China still fears that the West is willing to sabotage its economic activities? Because China fears loosing its economic concessions to other emerging markets like India?

Time is running out for China to show what its true intentions are. Promoting peace and stability in the region requires a concerted approach between all stakeholders. Surely, it is hard to criticize the People’s Republic for trying to secure its economic interests, when all other major powers maintain robust military presence in Africa. But if China follows in the footsteps of countries like France and the United States without communicating its intentions and objectives, it risks sliding back into a downward spiral of distrust and great power rivalry. Such scenario would not only be disastrous for Africa, but also for China’s long-term presence. Beijing should therefore not try to downplay its security interests, cover up its expanding military relations or hide behind the anti-Western sentiment of some of its African friends. Rather, China should realize that it is in its own interest to start communicating about its interests and objectives with other stakeholders.