Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in late September, President Xi Jinping announced that China would provide US$100 million of free military assistance to the African Union over the next five years to support the establishment of an African Stand-by Force for immediate response to crises.
Then earlier this month at the Sino-African summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa, President Xi pledged a further US$60 billion for infrastructure development across Africa before 2018.
All these indicated that Beijing is determined to further expand its influence across Africa in order to gain the upper hand over the West in the fierce competition for the continent’s rich natural resources.
Apart from pumping enormous investment into Africa, Beijing is also using arms sales as another means to strengthen ties with African countries.
In fact, Chinese-made weapons are becoming increasingly popular in the African market in recent years, and as the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world, China has already replaced Russia and Ukraine as the largest supplier of weapons for Sub-Saharan African countries (not including South Africa), with its annual sales hitting nearly US$1 billion last year.
China is currently exporting all sorts of weapons, ranging from assault rifles to tanks and jet fighters, to a total of 18 African countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, Algeria, Chad, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Namibia, Angola, Congo, etc. Among them, Nigeria is the biggest single buyer, accounting for 35 percent of the total imports.
As the largest oil exporting country on the continent, Nigeria is considered by China’s arms dealers as a VIP customer, and Nigeria has certainly lived up to its name as it is never stingy when it comes to buying weapons from China, especially high-end equipment.
In 2010, Nigeria imported 15 F-7NI interceptors from China (the Chinese upgraded version of the MIG-21) for US$250 million to serve as the backbone of its air force.
Two years later, Nigeria ordered two stealth frigates each with a displacement of 8,000 tons and armed with a 76mm gun from China, both of which have already entered service with the Nigerian navy earlier this year.
These two ships are by far the biggest and most advanced naval combat vessels ever to come into service in a West African country.
According to unconfirmed sources from the Pakistani military, the Nigerian air force is seriously considering buying up to 40 JF-17 jet fighters, a multi-role, third-generation combat aircraft jointly developed by China and Pakistan.
Apart from Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania are two other major buyers of Chinese weapons, which have almost dominated their arsenals.
Sudan’s major armed forces equipment are predominantly Chinese-made, including the F-7 jet fighter, the Q-5 ground support aircraft (the Chinese improved version of the MIG-19), the K-8 two-seat jet trainer, the Y-8 military transport aircraft (Chinese version of the former Soviet An-12) and the Type 96 main battle tank.
It is noteworthy that the Sudanian army acquired several sets of the Chinese-made WS-2 self-propelled multi-barrel rocket-launcher system in around 2010, with a maximum firing range of up to 400 kilometers, making Sudan the only country in the Sub-Saharan region with land-to-land long-range strike capabilities.
As for Tanzania, its military is equipped with a wide variety of Chinese-made weapons including jet fighters, tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The country maintains close military ties with China that date back to the 1960s.
Over the decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has helped to train tens of thousands of Tanzanian army officers, and the way the Tanzanian military is managed and organized is based largely on the PLA. In November 2014, the two countries held a joint military exercise along the east African coast.
While Chinese-made weapons have become the best-seller in the Sub-Saharan region, they are also well-received by North African countries, particularly Egypt.
Since the early ’90s, Egypt has purchased more than 70 F-7s from China, and since 1999 the K-8 jet trainers have been a part of the Egyptian air force. By far there are already around 120 K-8s in active service in Egypt, making it the largest overseas user of this particular model.
Developed back in the early ’90s as a two-seat, single-engine primary jet trainer specially designed for the PLA, the K-8 later turned out to be a highly successful and lucrative export product that helped open China’s door to the high-end weapons market in Africa.
It is estimated that Chinese products now corner 80 percent of the military jet trainer market in the Sub-Saharan region.
The main reason Chinese-made weapons have become so welcome in Africa is undoubtedly their competitive price.
For example, the JF-17 fighter, the top-of-the-line item on China’s arms exports list, only goes for US$20 million each, which is less than a third of the price of the US-made F-16.
Even though the JF-17 is hardly comparable to the F-16 both in terms of quality and technology, for most cash-strapped African countries desperate to modernize their air forces, the Chinese fighter is still pretty attractive.
Besides, China is a lot more willing to transfer military technology and help their customers build their own assembly lines than its western competitors.
Beijing also allows African customers to pay for their weapons with oil, coal or minerals instead of hard currency.
Besides, unlike most western countries, China has absolutely no problem with selling arms to African countries which are under United Nations arms embargo despite international criticism.
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