The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is set to receive attack drones from China, a move that has sparked concerns about a potential regional conflict between Rwanda and the DRC.
According to Africa Intelligence, a Paris-based news site, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation will soon supply the total of nine Caihong 4 (CH-4) attack drones to help Kinshasa fight the Rwanda-backed rebels on the territory of DRC.
Experts have concerns about the arms transaction with the DRC, fearing that weapons could end up in the wrong hands and exacerbate the conflict.
In recent months, tensions between the DRC and Rwanda have been mounting, with Rwanda shooting a DRC fighter jet in late January over an alleged violation of Rwandan airspace. Attempts by the United Nations, United States, and other African states to normalize the situation have been unsuccessful.
The Great Lakes region of Africa has been strongly affected by insecurities that date back to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, when hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in massacres. Today, as a result of a resurgence of violence generated by armed groups, 5.8 million people are displaced across the DRC.
“The West is reluctant to engage in arms sales with the DRC due to the country’s history, but China may do so in a clandestine way, using the conflict as a proxy to provoke and test the reaction of the West while also securing a foothold on the continent,” said Ibrahim Magara, a peace researcher and lecturer at the Loughborough University.
Ben Hunter, Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said that only a war of aggression in which the DRC uses Chinese drones against Rwandan civilians would incur notable criticism of China. “China has not received significant [backlash] for its use of drones in [other] African conflicts, largely due to its diplomatic influence in Africa,” Hunter pointed out.
“Moreover, the attention from Washington has [also] been limited because of the relatively minor implications of these drones for the U.S.-China relationship,” he added.
The growing interest in China’s military drones is not limited to the DRC. Nigeria was one of the first African states to buy Chinese CH-3 drones for use in counterinsurgency operations.
In Ethiopia’s recently ended civil war, China’s Win Loong drones were effective in quelling the rebellion in the country’s north – yet the Ethiopian armed forces were accused of committing war crimes during the conflict..
According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China has delivered 282 combat drones to 17 countries over the last decade, making it the world’s top seller of weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In comparison, the United States, which has the most advanced UAVs in the world, has only shipped 12 combat drones abroad in the same time span, all of which have gone to France and the United Kingdom.
“The Chinese drones are substantially cheaper than the U.S. drones in the same category, and likely come with less questions asked,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, a Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for PAX, a Dutch peace organization.
China also provides purchasers with flexible payment options.
“There seem to be an improvement with the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) Wing Loong I and II. These drones have now been imported and used by a number of African countries, including Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and Ethiopia,” Zwijnenburg continued. “The WL-2 has a larger payload and longer range and is deemed to be more reliable than the CH drones. We now seen the active use of WL in a number of African states in either civil wars or counterterrorism operations, e.g. in Western Sahara and Ethiopia.”
But most importantly, analysts say countries are turning to China because of export controls imposed by the United States. The Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement created in 1987 to prohibit the spread of platforms capable of delivering chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, limits Washington in selling its combat drones.
China’s domination of the worldwide market for combat drones is partially thanks to a major state-funded program that strives to upgrade the country’s armed forces. Its bestselling drone, the Caihong 4, is often compared to to the U.S.-made MQ-9 Reaper, while the popular Wing Loong 2 is believed to be similar to the U.S.-built MQ-1 Predator.
However, “assessing the effective use of these drones is difficult, as African users have not disclosed reliable information or statistics on the drone use in general,” Zwijnenburg said.
Going beyond drones, SIPRI reported that in the last decade Chinese arms sales in sub-Saharan Africa were only second to Russia, and almost three times the amount exported to the region by the United States.
Against this background, the DRC has tried to strike a balance between the United States and China, yet the intensifying conflict with the Rwanda-backed rebel groups might be thrusting it back into the arms of China.
China maintains significant sway over the DRC mining industry, controlling nearly 70 percent of the country’s mining portfolio. This gives Beijing a vested interest in the DRC, a major exporter of cobalt and copper to China.
The current leadership of the DRC has been actively renegotiating Chinese mineral contracts, showing that the government is committed to reducing Beijing’s influence, which is the legacy of former president Joseph Kabila.
Since taking office in 2019, President Felix Tshisekedi has sought to balance the DRC’s relationship with China and the United States. In December 2022, the DRC signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on the development of the electric vehicle battery industry.
Importantly, a DRC court recently barred China Molybdenum from operating the Tenke Fungurume mine, the world’s largest cobalt and copper mine, due to allegations that the company failed to declare thousands of tons of deposits and stripped the government of royalties.
In addition, last year, the DRC government requested an additional $17 billion investment from China as part of a 2008 infrastructure-for-minerals deal. Tshisekedi claimed that Congo has not benefited much from the Sicomines agreement, which was made as a part of a cobalt and copper joint venture with Chinese state-owned firms.
Yet, the country’s long-standing security problems continue to haunt its people, derailing the reforms. In the face of prolonged armed conflict and approaching elections, the DRC leadership might be forced to revive its warm ties with China.