China’s “friendship without limits” with Russia may be tested in Africa, where Beijing’s long-established economic interests are at risk of clashing with the growing footprint of Moscow’s paramilitary Wagner Group.
The most recent point of potential friction is Niger, where leaders of a July 26 military coup are reported by The Associated Press to have reached out to Wagner for help in cementing their hold on power.
That news is unlikely to have been welcomed in Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokesman last week described the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, as “a friend of China” and said the country hoped for a political solution to the crisis.
The diverging interests extend far beyond Niger as the Wagner Group expands its reach across the Sahel, often exchanging its security services for access to the region’s rich mineral deposits and other resources.
China also has massive investments in the region, and analysts are divided on how the Chinese see the mercenaries. While Wagner might shore up security allowing for the Chinese to do business in dangerous countries, Beijing also values stability and is competing for some of the same resources.
Pros and Cons
“Chinese projects may have benefited from its presence. But in some other cases, China has also suffered from it,” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said of Wagner in Africa.
She noted that it has been widely speculated that Wagner was responsible for the deaths of nine Chinese nationals at a mine in the Central African Republic, or CAR, earlier this year. CAR rebel groups and several Western officials told the New York Times after the incident that they believed Wagner or Wagner-backed locals were behind the armed attack.
But last month, Wagner posted on its Telegram channel saying that it had rescued a group of Chinese miners in CAR at the behest of the Chinese Embassy.
Alessandro Arduino, an affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute and King’s College London, noted that security is essential to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in Africa.
“Wagner’s involvement might provide a brief spell of stability enforced by military means — an inherently delicate and transitory fix for China. In fact, it could potentially transform into a threat, particularly if conflicts arise over mining rights,” he told VOA.
“Within this context, Chinese enterprises engaged in mining could strike interim deals to safeguard their workforce and assets, but the agreements with mercenaries could face a sudden U-turn, and even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has learned that lesson,” he said.
Darren Olivier, director at conflict research consultancy African Defense Review, told VOA: “It’s difficult to be entirely certain how China feels about Wagner.”
In the long term, he said, it is likely Beijing sees Wagner “as a hindrance to its own ambitions while at the same time preferring that it stays in place in certain high-risk countries for now, so as to keep protecting foreign interests, including China’s, until alternative approaches can be implemented.”
Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said there’s no risk of China setting up its own version of Wagner.
“China wants to show that its activities are aboveboard, that its activities respect local laws and regulations,” he said. “China is much more sensitive about its reputation in Africa than Russia.”
Nantuyla noted that Chinese security firms operating on the continent offer advisory services, sell equipment and train local security forces but are not as operational as groups like Wagner that are involved in heavy fighting.
“It’s only in a few cases, in Sudan for instance, when they were involved in hostage rescue and stuff like that,” he continued, adding there are some that do anti-piracy maritime escorts.
Analysts see no indications that Wagner mercenaries are pulling out of Africa any time soon. Despite his apparent exile to Belarus, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin — whose aborted mutiny in late June challenged Russia’s military command, rattling the Kremlin — was seen in attendance at Putin’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last month hobnobbing with African officials.