China could help fight illegal arms trade fuelling conflict in Africa, experts say

China could help fight illegal arms trade fuelling conflict in Africa, experts say
China could help fight illegal arms trade fuelling conflict in Africa, experts say

Jevans Nyabiage

Africa-Press – Tanzania. While the illicit weapons may not be traced to China, they say Beijing could take a more active role in peace and security
Engaging Beijing on small arms and light weapons control issues seen as ‘useful way forward’ given its growing influence
a major supplier of weapons to Africa – could help fight the illicit arms trade that is fuelling deadly conflicts across the continent, according to experts.

They say China could also play a role in upholding international law and norms governing arms transfers. The assessment comes after President Xi Jinping told African leaders at the Brics summit in Johannesburg in August that China would work with them to “safeguard a peaceful and secure global environment”.

He said Beijing would support efforts to “build a new Africa that enjoys peace, unity, prosperity and strength” including the African Union’s initiative to “silence the guns” across the continent.

China is Africa’s largest trading partner and a major financier of mega infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, highways and power dams under its trillion-dollarBut growing insecurity has been a challenge, with some countries where China has heavily invested – especially in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region – hit by military coups.

Belt and Road Initiative. Concerned about the security of its citizens and investments in the Horn of Africa, China last year appointed a special envoy to help broker peace in the strategically important region where its first overseas military base is located, in Djibouti.

Security researchers say that while the illicit weapons fuelling conflicts in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic may not be traced to China, Beijing could take a more active role in peace and security to mitigate the effects of illegal arms transfers in Africa.

Stephen Mwachofi Singo, deputy director of the Nairobi-based think tank Security Research and Information Centre (SRIC), said Africa continued to suffer from the negative effects of small arms and light weapons proliferation.

But he said “engaging China on small arms and light weapons control issues is one useful way forward in fighting insecurity in the continent, given that China is increasingly becoming a very significant actor in Africa”.

Singo said China’s move to join the Arms Trade Treaty in 2020 was an important step and showed Beijing’s commitment to working within the rules-based international system to curb the illegal arms trade.

“It was a surprise for everyone involved in the arms control movement because China is traditionally a closed country,” said Singo, who is also a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

The treaty calls for transparency in arms transfers, with records of imports and exports to be published. Singo said China’s participation was likely to encourage other countries, including in Africa, to join the treaty.

China has also begun the process of ratifying the UN protocol against illegal manufacturing and trafficking of firearms. Singo was among experts from Africa, China and the European Union involved in an arms control initiative to tackle the illicit flow of arms into African nations.

Funded by the EU in 2019, the three-year project brought together SRIC, the non-profit China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, and Saferworld, an NGO with conflict prevention and peacebuilding programmes in dozens of countries.

Reviewing the project in a blog post last week, the group said it had contributed to advances on small arms control, including in the Dakar Action Plan from the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and in Beijing’s Global Security Initiative.

During the 2021 FOCAC, China and Africa committed to work together to fight against the illicit transfer and misuse of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition.

Elizabeth Kirkham, a senior adviser at Saferworld, said the Chinese commitments could pave the way for financial and technical support for tangible initiatives that could have a meaningful impact on the illegal trade and diversion of arms in Africa.

But she said that in many cases, “the information on exactly how these commitments are being operationalised is not readily available, and the impact of any practical actions on the illicit trade and diversion in arms often remains unclear”.

“In order to address this, policy experts and practitioners from different world regions should be encouraged to conduct more similar joint research and pursue information exchange, cooperation and joint actions,” Kirkham said. Singo noted that although China is a major producer of arms, there is no evidence that it is selling or transferring illicit weapons in Africa.

“We think China, due to its growing influence in Africa, should take a more active role in peace and security programmes, particularly on the issue of mitigating the causes of armed conflicts and one of them being the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons,” Singo said.

According to the Small Arms Survey Annual Report 2019, weapons trafficked in Africa include legacy weapons recycled from earlier conflicts and weapons diverted from national stockpiles, as well as arms from elsewhere. But there is also a thriving industry in countries like Burkina Faso manufacturing the AK-47-type guns used for criminal activities.

In South Sudan, the small arms and light weapons diverted through neighbouring countries – including Chad, Libya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya – originated from state and commercial arms suppliers from Belarus, China, Israel, the EU, Ukraine and the US, according to Saferworld.

Li Peng, deputy secretary general at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said it was an “important area” for security cooperation. “I think the Africa-China-Europe project was a win-win solution for both China and African countries,” Li wrote in a blog post released by Saferworld.

“The security of African countries benefits the security of the whole world.

During the project, the experts reached many agreements on how to tackle small arms issues, such as the importance of marking and tracing arms and ammunition.

David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, said Russian and Chinese small arms and light weapons had become the weapons of choice in Africa as they are relatively inexpensive, durable and simple to operate.

As a result, he said Russia, China and several former Soviet republics tended to be leading sources for these weapons in Africa. Shinn said most of these weapons constituted legal purchases by governments, though some were transferred surreptitiously to favoured rebel groups in neighbouring countries and others were available to any buyers on the international arms market.

“While China does not sell [small arms and light weapons] to illegal organisations, it does not have an effective system for monitoring transfers once they have been sold to governments,” Shinn said.

“The US and EU countries have stronger systems for tracking arms sales and sanctioning countries that violate their transfer regulations.”


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