On 15 April, the Chinese embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, advised Chinese citizens and Chinese-funded institutions in the country to strictly avoid going out and to stay away from windows facing the street to prevent accidental injuries from stray bullets. The areas where Chinese economic interests are affected by increasing uncertainty and insecurity are rising in Africa.
As the situation is still fluid and evolving, the Sudanese army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is fighting the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF)’s attempt to take control of the presidential palace, the state TV station and Khartoum International Airport.
Sudan's recent history is marred by internal conflicts, including two of the longest-lasting civil wars on the African continent and South Sudan's secession from Sudan in 2011. In the 2019 coup d'état, the Sudanese military and RSF deposed President Omar al-Bashir, a military commander who had been in power since 1989 when he in turn deposed the locally elected government. In 2021, both military factions' infighting led to the deposition of the elected Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Now, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of RSF, is in the good graces of Moscow and is challenging General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan grip on power.
Russian mercenaries in Sudan are a placeholder for Moscow's ambitions to develop a military port on the Red Sea and utilise the country as a launch pad for operations in the neighbouring countries.
The Russian hand behind the conflict
Frictions between the Sudanese army and the RSF paramilitary are not new in the country. Still, the sudden increase of the Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group is a game changer. According to Declan Walsh, the NYT correspondent in Sudan, Wagner has obtained lucrative Sudanese mining concessions that produce a stream of gold that could reduce the effect of economic sanctions over the Ukraine war.
On 25 Feb 2023, the EU implemented restrictive measures on Mikhail Potepkin, director of Meroe Gold which is considered a foil for the Wagner Group’s operations in Sudan. At the same time, Russian mercenaries in Sudan are a placeholder for Moscow's ambitions to develop a military port on the Red Sea and utilise the country as a launch pad for operations in the neighbouring countries.
The Wagner group is an umbrella term to designate mercenaries, paramilitary forces, and former Russian special forces operators that act as the tip of the spear of Russian operations in several conflict zones from Africa to the Middle East and Ukraine.
According to a recent research from the Atlantic Council, China continues to be one of the significant financiers of infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa, with a total investment of US$300 billion over the past two decades. Also, the report estimates the size of Chinese migrants in Africa, with around one million permanently residing in the region. In Sudan alone, China National Petroleum Corporation has been working for 20 years, and besides hydrocarbon extraction, Beijing's economic embrace includes hydropower, water supply, logistics and agriculture.
While the recent meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow does not leave any doubt regarding the relationship between Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin, the reality on the ground may differ.
... foreign mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group, could perceive Chinese mining companies as a threat to their primary source of income in the region: gold and diamonds.
Russia and China, to each its own in Sudan
The number of attacks on Chinese infrastructure and personnel is rising, but not as a coordinated global strategy to attack the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Several interconnected factors include the sharp increase in Chinese workers overseas as some of the BRI projects restarted after years of Covid-19 imposed hiatus. Also, foreign mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group, could perceive Chinese mining companies as a threat to their primary source of income in the region: gold and diamonds. The shocking attack on a Chinese gold mine in the Central African Republic on 19 March, where nine Chinese nationals were killed and two others wounded without any culprit being brought to justice, may have involved mercenaries.
The motive of the attack on the Chinese-managed gold mine remains unclear as no militant organisation has laid claim to the assault, nor did the attackers steal valuables and equipment or try to kidnap Chinese workers for ransom. However, even before the implementation of the BRI, the presence of Chinese workers in the African extractive sector had long attracted the attention of armed groups, who saw the mining operations as a source of revenue or leverage against the government.
Now, the security situation in the region is complicated not only by weak states not being able to protect China's interests but also by the expansion of Russian mercenaries that provide training services for the local military or even take part in the conflict. The region, known as the "coup belt", is just a small part of a larger geopolitical strategy of Russia's acquisition of influence.
China's BRI necessitates stability to prosper, while the Wagner group thrives in chaos.
Following a playbook previously tested in Syria, the Kremlin moves in with a small number of highly trained paramilitary forces supported by a disinformation campaign on local social media. Therefore the presence of groups like Wagner in the region serves as an early warning that Russia intends to disrupt the political status quo using a range of tactics from deception to supporting military takeovers.
The precarious security situation and the vulnerability of Chinese workers in Sudan and the region underscore Beijing's challenges when a new security actor, the Wagner Group, operates in the same area but with opposite interests. China's BRI necessitates stability to prosper, while the Wagner group thrives in chaos.
Therefore the presence of unaccountable mercenaries, whose local actions may not align with Moscow's instructions, could cause tension in the newly formed Sino-Russian relationship. At the same time, the return of mercenaries in Africa presents a complex challenge that requires the international community's joint efforts to strengthen international laws to prevent the recruitment and deployment of guns for hire.
Related: Chinese investments in Africa moving into new areas amid return of the West | Is the US subverting China's influence in the DRC? | Guinea coup: Why did non-interventionist China speak up? | No more easy money: Will BRI projects in Southeast Asia slow and stall?