In a bid to develop a market for its arms industry, China has dispatched four military delegations to sub-Saharan Africa in the last few months. South Africa and the United Nations have worked to resolve the region's conflicts. But China's new policy - really intended to get the People's Liberation Army out of the Chinese economy - threatens to create a miniature but destabilizing arms race in southern Africa.
A visiting delegation of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) officials met with senior Namibian military officials on Aug. 14 to discuss Namibia's defense force structure, reported the Namibian news agency, Nampa. The delegation then visited a military vehicles manufacturer owned by the Namibian military.
Within the last few months, Beijing has sent four military delegations to Africa. Officially, the trips are designed to strengthen military cooperation between China and its African allies. In reality, the trips signal China's plan to increase weapons sales. If just one regional player begins to modernize its weapons, others in the region will be forced to follow suit. International, as well as South African, efforts to bring peace will be undermined.
The PLA visit to Namibia is part of a pattern stretching back to May, when Chinese officers visited Angola and Botswana. Both missions resulted in bilateral agreements to strengthen military cooperation. In July, a group of Chinese warships made a landmark visit to the continent, calling on ports in South Africa and Tanzania.
These contacts appear to be aimed at achieving financial gain, not the geopolitical influence that Beijing sought in Africa during the Cold War. In a bid to counter both Moscow and Washington, Beijing supported rebel movements in Angola and Namibia and sold arms to Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Today, Beijing is looking to shift its military's money-making away from China's domestic industries and toward shipping arms abroad. Doing so will strengthen the hands of civilian Chinese leaders. Arms exports, after all, require government approval. They also satisfy the PLA's need to make up for revenues lost as it abandons domestic enterprises.
In Africa, the Chinese military is starting from scratch: looking to strike comparatively small deals - when compared to the United States and Russia - in places without heavy competition. According to Chinese government statistics, the PLA has arms export deals with only 22 countries in the world. Only two are in Africa. The structure of these deals can be novel. For instance, the PLA has reportedly traded Kalashnikov rifles for eight tons of ivory, reported the London newspaper, the Sunday Times, on July 9.
But the sale of even comparatively small amounts of arms can begin to tip the balance of power and trigger a round of buying. In Namibia, for instance, the PLA has reportedly sold at least four K-8 advanced training aircraft, according to a report by Republikein, a Namibian newspaper, on July 27. A two-seat jet aircraft capable of a speed of 590 miles per hour, the K-8 can also be configured as a light ground attack aircraft.
It is often equipped with a 23-millimeter gun under the fuselage, a self-computing optical gun sight and two hard points, for carrying bombs or rockets. Several countries, including Pakistan, use the jets in the ground attack and reconnaissance roles. Once Namibia places the jets into operation, others like Botswana will feel the need to buy these or similar aircraft.
All the regional players have a huge demand for small arms. Angola, Botswana and Namibia have increased defense spending while Angola and Namibia spend resources fighting two major conflicts. Luanda has doubled its troop numbers, from 60,000 in 1998 to 114,000, in the 25-year-old civil war against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Botswana uses the bulk of its weapons budget to buy armored vehicles, heavy guns, small arms ammunition and stun grenades, reported the London daily, the Financial Times on July 22.
Such an arms race could threaten one of the few sources of stability in the region: South Africa's military superiority. Pretoria still has the upper hand, compared to other regional militaries. And South Africa has scaled down its troop numbers while modernizing its weaponry. In September 1999, South Africa spent $5 billion on high-tech, foreign-made weapons, including three new submarines, four warships, 40 helicopters and 28 fighter jets.
But the flow of arms to the region threatens to prolong conflict - in opposition to the South African, and international, attempts to tamp down Africa's wars.