Chinese intelligence is operating in Africa on a large scale. Thanks to many companies working in the continent. From infrastructure to communications. But also expanding its military assistance with the main objective: to control the strategic resources and trade routes.
The Chinese intelligence services have started to operate in Africa at least since the early 60s, in the wake of then Premier Zhou Enlai’s landmark trip to 10 newly independent African nations, from December 1963 to January 1964. In those days, Beijing’s intelligence services were in competition with those of the Soviets and their allies (especially East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Cuba) and with those of the Western powers, including Formosa (Taiwan’s former name).
One of the objectives of the People’s Republic of China in Africa is to be recognized by the largest number of states as the ‘real China’, instead of Taiwan, which still calls itself the Republic of China. In the 1960s, China supported revolutionary movements mainly in Burundi, and in Kivu (Congo) . Besides, several cadres of the guerrilla groups in Africa were trained in China to fight the ‘imperialist powers’, starting from the South African apartheid regime and the Portuguese colonial system.
Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebels in Angola, attended a course in guerrilla warfare in China. He also learned there the tactics that he would use so effectively during Angola civil war that began in 1975. Savimbi formed Unita after failing to find common ground with other nationalist movements, notably the Marxist inspired Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which, supported by Soviet and Cuban military assistance, took over the capital city Luanda, just after the fall of the right-wing regime in Lisbon. It was established then as an alliance between Beijing and Western intelligence (such as the CIA, the then SDECE, French intelligence, and the South African services) to support the UNITA against the Angolan pro-Soviet regime.
Since China has become the second largest (and perhaps the first by now) world economic power, the role of Chinese intelligence has spread to the African economic sphere that has become predominant. At the same time Beijing aims to quietly increase its military footprint on the African continent by expanding military assistance, while consolidating control over critical strategic resources and trade routes.
A Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Military Commission was established in 1998 to prepare the groundwork for a new defense policy towards the African continent. The ‘white paper’ that emerged from the commission, advised the Chinese government on the need to aggressively increase arms sales to African countries as well as to step up training programmes for the armed forces of Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC, Cameroon, Gambia, Burundi and Togo to counter US and other Western training programmes on the continent.
In July1999, a meeting was held between China’s various security organs (civil and military agencies that can be divided into those subordinated to the Communist Party and those managed by the State) to discuss intelligence operations in Africa. The Ministry of State Security (Guojia Anquan Bu or Guoanbu, in Chinese) is the primary security organ of the People’s Republic of China. The organizational structure of the MSS reflects the structure of the Russian KGB. It is responsible for domestic and foreign intelligence and for counter-intelligence operations. In addition to the Ministry of State Security, the military intelligence collection is conducted by the Second and Third Departments of the PLA.
The Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) also plays a critical role and boasts some of the world’s top economic intelligence-gathering units. While it is predominant with regards to the government’s formal interface with foreign commercial interest groups, it also has sub-intelligence units dealing with economic information-gathering. Some of MOFCOM’s economic, business and financial information is processed by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), and the Department of International Relations.
The UFWD is also in charge of maintaining relations with the many Chinese expatriates in Africa, (170 associations of Chinese expatriates in Africa work to promote the ‘united China’, in order to counter Taiwan). Over the past 10 years, Chinese intelligence has expanded its influence in several African states, such as Angola, in order to assist Chinese oil companies that have shown a keen interest in getting involved in the Angolan oil sector. China plans to open a trade mission in Sao Tome and Principe. China’s intelligence activities have also intensified in Guinea Bissau, to control relations between Taiwan and Gambia, and in Senegal, to control the Dakar relationship with Taipei before they cut ties after Dakar resumed relations with Beijing, or in Niger to keep the relations between Burkina Faso and Taiwan under control and to monitor Islamic movements allegedly linked to China’s ethnic Uighurs, in Xinjiang. China is also interested in expanding its presence in Niger, Africa’s leading uranium-producing nation, in Nigeria, the largest oil producer in Africa, as well as in Sudan where Beijing’s intelligence has always backed Sudan’s efforts for maintenance of its national unity and territorial integrity, also by monitoring the several guerrilla groups. Beijing is interested not only in developing relations between Khartoum and Juba, but also in putting an end to the South Sudanese civil war. China also hopes to boost ties with Egypt and Algeria (to control those Islamic movements related to Uighurs). Strengthening cooperation with South Africa is also among China’s foreign policy priorities, because of the African state’s strategic location and its economic and political importance. Mozambique is also a strategic African country for Beijing due to its location and its proximity to Swaziland which maintains a good relationship with Taiwan.
There are currently at least 5 Guoanbu regional coordination centers in Africa: in Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa. All of these countries are home to Beijing’s important diplomatic delegations, whose Guoanbu agents play a major role. Besides Chinese local embassies, Beijing’s intelligence network can also rely on Chinese expatriates living and working in Africa and on the Chinese corporations operating across the continent, from the oil giants (China National Petroleum Corporation, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Sinopec, PetroChina, and others) to those of the maritime transport (such as COSCO ), and those of the construction and communications fields. These last two groups of corporations play a relevant role, since Chinese enterprises have built major government buildings in several African countries, including the new African Union’s Addis Ababa headquarters. There are reasonable grounds to suspect that microphones and other spy equipment may be hidden in these buildings. Finally, the two major Chinese players in the communications field, Huawei Technologies and ZTE have built various African telecommunication infrastructures giving to Beijing, in this way, privileged access to broadcasting in several states of the continent.