Published on 27 Mar 2023

Asian defence industry makes inroads into Africa

China, India, and South Korea vie for a share of the US$40bn African defence pie

For decades African countries relied almost exclusively on the West and Russia for arms. But the table is now slowly turning as India, China, and South Korea eye the African defence market.

China remains the dominant Asian defence exporter to Africa. According to the Global Development Centre at Boston University, China signed at least 27 loan deals with eight African countries worth US$3.5bn between 2000 and 2020 for defence spending. Most of this was to enable the purchase of military aircraft, equipment and training. China also donates older hardware. It has built military training facilities and barracks in Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea. The number of Chinese military attachés in Africa has also grown fast.

A recent analysis by the Atlantic Council, which incorporates data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reveals that from 2017 to 2020, China's arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa were nearly three times higher than those of the United States. From 2010 to 2021, total arms exports to the region amounted to US$9.32bn, with China contributing 22% (equivalent to US$2.04bn) – only surpassed by Russia at 24% (US$2.24bn). By comparison, the United States accounted for a mere 5% or US$473m. Over 60% of Chinese arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa were received by five countries: Tanzania (19.6%), Nigeria (13.5%), Sudan (12.6%), Cameroon (11.2%), and Zambia (6.22%). These nations also host some of China's most significant investment and construction projects in the region, suggesting an increasing link between Beijing's economic interests and its security considerations. According to the Atlantic Council, Nigeria exemplifies the convergence of China's security and economic interests in sub-Saharan Africa. The region's most populous nation, Nigeria possesses abundant energy resources and seaports. From 2006 to 2020, it received over 13% of all Chinese investment in the region. In 2021 alone, China supplied 34.4% of Nigeria's arms imports, far surpassing the United States and Russia. Furthermore, Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine may create opportunities for greater Chinese military exports to Nigeria. As international sanctions following the invasion potentially curtail Nigeria's 2021 military agreement with Moscow, the country may increasingly rely on Chinese arms imports. China is also the only Asian country that has a permanent military base in Africa. Five years after it opened, The Chinese military base at Djibouti had its first port call. There was no pomp and circumstance, but the pier it docked at – jutting 1,100 feet (335m) into the Gulf of Aden is allegedly large enough to take aircraft-carriers. Now, Equatorial Guinea is in talks over a Chinese military base. That would give China’s navy a foothold on the Atlantic coast. Since opening its base in Djibouti, ostensibly to support anti-piracy efforts, China has stepped up its military engagement in Africa.

Not to be left behind rival India, which is fast emerging as a leading Asian defence manufacturer, has set a target of exporting US$5bn worth of arms by 2025. It showcased some of its military hardware to a group of visiting African defence chiefs in the western city of Pune in March 2023 and conducted a joint military exercise with over 23 African nations, adding momentum to growing military cooperation with Africa. The Indian defence forces let the visitors try out some of their latest home-made weapons during the exercise in an attempt to win new contracts. Over the last five years, India’s military exports have increased by 334%, now reaching over 75 countries. Guided by its philosophy of non-violence New Delhi has, in the past, been reticent on exporting weapons. But that policy has changed under the ruling BJP. A recently released report by the India Exim Bank underscores India's growing role as a key defence exporter to Africa. Non-lethal items such as Indian-made military vehicles (manufactured predominantly by Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland) have long been exported to several African countries, but tactical arms have now been added to the list. In 2022, a visiting defence delegation from Tanzania was shown an array of anti-tank guided missiles, surface-to-air missiles, underwater weapons, countermeasure dispensing systems, drone-delivered bombs and missiles manufactured by the state-owned Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL). When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visited New Delhi in January 2023, both he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to deepen collaboration between their defence industries and enhance military engagements. Between 2017 and 2021, Mauritius made up 6.6% of India's arms exports to the continent, followed by Mozambique (5%) and Seychelles (2.3%). The Indian Ministry of Defence has also established cooperation frameworks with South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Madagascar. 

Meanwhile, South Korea wants to join the ranks of the world's biggest arms-dealers. Its defence manufacturing firms have set their sights on Africa. In November 2022, the Korea Aerospace Industries inked an agreement to localise the manufacturing of advanced training aircraft in Egypt. In 2022, Egypt and South Korea signed a US$1.7bn deal for the delivery of K9 self-propelled howitzers, a type of mobile artillery system, manufactured by Hanwha. South Korea's potential as an arms exporter results from its enduring confrontation with its Stalinist northern neighbour. The need to keep up its guard against North Korea has meant that South Korea has become one of the world's biggest defence spender. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) it ranked 10th in the world for military spending in 2020. That year defence accounted for 12.4% of the annual government budget and 2.8% of GDP - about the same as that of India (2.9%). Under former President Moon Jae-In South Korea boosted spending on acquiring and developing new weapons systems in an effort to modernise the armed forces. As home-grown military technology has improved, exporting it has become more lucrative. Exporting more also makes sense for South Korean conglomerates, which have long catered only to their own armed forces. Producing larger quantities lower production costs per unit and help defray the expense of development. South Korea's emerging role as an arms export powerhouse has other benefits too. Defence deals often come with bilateral security agreements and technology co-operation, making them a useful tool of foreign policy. The deal with Egypt came with a promise of mutual military co-operation in the future.

Although Africa accounts for only 5.8% of the global arms purchase it collectively spends almost US$40bn (2021) in military equipment. According to SIPRI Africa recorded a 1.2% increase in defence spending in 2021 over the year before. Nigeria saw the sharpest ramp up in military spending – US$4.5bn – an increase of 56% over 2020. Some 20 states in Africa saw armed conflict in 2021. Eleven of these suffered higher estimated conflict related fatalities in 2021 than in 2020, with the total increase for the region standing at about 19%. Egypt’s low-level insurgency in the Sinai, a 40-year-old on-again-off-again territorial spat between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara and the fight against Jihadist insurgency in the Sahel create a ready market for small arms in Africa.



'Egypt signs major arms deal with South Korea', Al-Monitor, 08 February 2022

'Tanzanian Defence Minister visits BDL', Bharat Dynamics Limited, 27 August 2022

India sees 334% jump in defence exports in last five years’, Mint, 25 September 2022

Reinvigorating India's economic engagements with Southern Africa', India Exim Bank, October 2022

'Cooperation agreement between Arab Organization for Industrialisation and Korea Aerospace Industries, Ltd.', Arab Organization for Industrialisation, 30 November 2022

Joint statement between the Arab Republic of Egypt and India’, The Arab Republic of Egypt Presidency, 26 January 2023

'India-Africa military exercise begins in Pune', The Economic Times, 21 March 2023 

'China in sub-Saharan Africa: Reaching far beyond natural resources', Atlantic Council, March 2023

SIPRI Year Book 2022

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