China seeks allies, arms markets in West Africa as French influence wanes

China’s expansion into the West African arms market is a shift in strategy for a country that has typically focussed its weapons sales on other African regions. But Beijing is not just competing for a share of a new market: amid waning French influence in West Africa, China is looking to make new allies and build influence.

China’s largest weapons producer, Norinco – the seventh-largest military equipment supplier globally – has opened a new sales office in Senegal, according to a South China Morning Post report published August 21.The company already has offices in Nigeria, Angola and South Africa. 

Beijing also plans to set up offices in Mali and the Ivory Coast – where it already sells arms – with a physical presence for maintenance, repair and overhauls of vehicles and military equipment, specialist news site Military Africa reported on August 1.  

The arrival of the weapons giant on Senegalese soil has also been reported in Chinese media, where it has been heralded as an advance for Chinese influence in West Africa and a challenge to the existing influence of Russia and France. 

Battle for influence

The countries now seemingly in China’s sights – Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali – are all French-speaking and, as former colonies, historically fell under France’s sphere of influence. In Senegal and Ivory Coast, France is still the largest arms provider.

“China always concentrated on east and central Africa, but has so far kept a lower profile in Western Africa, one of the reasons being the language barrier,” said Danilo delle Fave, a specialist in Chinese security and researcher at the non-profit International Team for the Study of Security Verona.

Typically, French influence in West Africa has been under threat from a different competing power: Russia. The development of ties with Africa “is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities”, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a 2019 interview

Russia has been waging a charm offensive across the continent, expanding commercial links and playing on the lingering resentment former colonies have for France, even hosting a summit of African leaders in St. Petersburg in July. 

On Moscow’s orders, the Wagner paramilitary group has pursued arms sales in West Africa at the same time as France has been driven out of Mali and then Burkina Faso amid deteriorating relations with the military juntas that seized power in both countries in recent years. 

Russia wasted no time in filling the void with a military expansion in the region that has since seemed to stall due to Moscow’s other military commitments. “Russia’s ability to export arms is suffering due to international sanctions imposed since the start of the war in Ukraine,” delle Fave said. 

Enter a new player: China. Norinco’s arrival in Senegal shows that “Chinese companies are very opportunistic and apt at filling competitive gaps,” said Luke Patey, specialist in Chinese economic relations at the Danish Institute for International Studies. 

In West Africa especially, Chinese efforts to enter the market are increasing wherever Beijing sees a “deterioration of French influence and the effect of international sanctions on Russia’s trade”, delle Fave said. 

Despite a show of unity between Beijing and Moscow since the start of the war in Ukraine, China seems to have no qualms about entering into direct competition with its Russian ally for the arms market in West Africa. 

This comes as no surprise to delle Fave. “China doesn’t want Russia to prevail [in Ukraine]; it just doesn’t want the West to become stronger by weakening Russia. That doesn’t mean [China] is not going to compete with Russia for market shares.”  

Sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest arms exporter 

China has only become a major supplier of arms to African countries in the last 10 years, but a decade has been long enough to build a strong presence in the sector. Beijing is now the third-largest arms importer in Africa, behind Russia and the US.  

Chinese state media and the South China Morning Post have said the physical expansion into West Africa exemplifies a growing desire among the Chinese military-industrial complex not just to sell arms in Africa but as an example of Beijing’s ambitions for wider security cooperation with African countries.   

Norinco’s sales office in Senegal is a way for the company to communicate to the market “that it is serious about selling more weapons to Africa”, said Earl Conteh-Morgan, a specialist in Chinese-African relations at the University of South Florida.  

A permanent team will help China provide after-sales service that could cement commercial relationships and allow Norinco to offer commercial solutions suited to evolving political climates – while also allowing the company to closely follow events on the ground in Senegal and neighbouring countries. 

The choice of Senegal as a first West African base also reveals growing confidence at Norinco – and by extension, in Beijing. Typically, the company and other Chinese organisations have only opened offices in countries that have strong historical or commercial links with China, such as Angola and Nigeria. 

With international sanctions potentially hampering Russian efforts to expand weapons sales to Africa and confidence in Beijing running high, Chinese weapons suppliers could be poised to enter – and perhaps dominate – new markets across the continent.  

But it would be premature to underestimate Russia. In sub-Saharan Africa, Russia has surpassed China as the largest supplier of arms since 2018 – a lead it managed to hold onto in 2022 despite being subject to international sanctions over its war in Ukraine. 

“China can fill the gap if Russian sales decline, but I don’t know if we are there yet,” said Patey.  

Guns, drones, fighter jets 

Another possibility for Chinese expansion is in diversifying the types of weapons it sells. “China still exports mostly light weaponry, but we see them increasing the sales of more advanced equipment like drones or vehicles,” Patey said.  

The Democratic Republic of Congo bought drones from China in February 2023 and analysts have noted that African purchases of Chinese fighter jets are increasing.  

Such sales are a direct consequence of the war in Ukraine as Russia – historically the major provider of fighter jets to Africa – is now finding its own air force lacking in power

The evolution of Beijing’s objectives in Africa has also spurred entrepreneurship among Chinese arms companies. Traditionally, China has sold arms to countries that possess the natural resources coveted by Beijing. Arms sales to Sudan and Nigeria, for example, facilitated Chinese access to the two countries’ vast oil reserves.  

But now China seems to be looking to exchange arms for influence. 

“China is economically more or less dominant in the region, which brought in quite a lot of influence, so now they are expanding their efforts in security affairs,” said Conteh-Morgan.

Norinco’s arrival in Senegal is a commercial opportunity for the group, but also a bid for power. “China, llike Russia, has a security and business interest in seeing France in trouble in this region,” Conteh-Morgan added. “It helps dilute French – and Western – influence in Africa.” 

It also helps to counter the influence of another superpower: the United States. While former president Donald Trump opted for an isolationist strategy, the Biden administration has tended to look towards an alliance of democracies to contain China’s efforts to build influence around the globe.  

“Beijing has responded by upping their own effort to increase Chinese influence in Africa,” Conteh-Morgan said.  

Source: France 24