28 July 2020

A new entry: China’s mercenaries

Sergiu Medar

After China’s investments’ development outside the national territory, especially in unstable political areas, marked by violent conflicts, it was necessary to develop a new field able to provide physical security and the security of the involved personnel. This new field, which went through failures and successes, developed continuously in the Western states, but it was not approached yet by China. Faced down with the necessity, the Communist Government needs, now, to develop a field which was not part of the Communist mentality and ideology.

Image source: Hepta

The private military and security companies (PMSC) were founded, almost 40 years ago, to reach security objectives when the state does not want, for different reasons, to be involved. The missions of these companies are dependent on the nature of the interests that hire them. The PMSC work for money and based on a contract, hereof the name contractors. They are included in the security contractor or private military contractor categories. When they join fight operations, they are seen as mercenaries. The beneficiaries could be: governments, private companies, international organizations, etc. The purposes of using these companies are different from country to country, depending on the contractors and employer’s interests.

Most of the PMSC provide the physical security of private and state companies, which work in low or medium-risk environments, inside the national territory. There are also states which use these companies to provide the physical protection of some of state’s security institutions. For example, the Pentagon has protection from private companies. In other countries, such an evolution is inconceivable.

Other companies, mostly belonging to US and Russia are participating, integrated or not, with regular military forces in missions outside the national territory. These missions include the training of foreign military forces, the protection of officials, of convoys, liberations from prisons, kidnaps, murders, the clandestine collection of intelligence for their own missions as well as for other beneficiaries, the protection of military or industrial objectives in hostile environments and even the participation, in small-groups, to high-intensity military operations. Such missions ask for the use of high professional forces, usually former special operations forces of intelligence structures’ members. When they join offensive fight operations, the contractors, according to the Geneve Convention, are acting against the law. They cannot be captivated and if they do, depending on the legislation of the state they acted against, they can be executed or be subjected to prisoners’ exchange with the enemy. They are called spies and treated accordingly with the abovementioned Convention. That is why the governments which indirectly contracted their mission never admit using mercenaries.

Currently, they act in more than 50 states. The only continent they are not present on is Antarctica. The most famous PMSC are:

              - Academi (former Blackwater), Triple Canopy, KBR, MPRI, G4S, as well as other US companies;

              -Aegis Defence Services, International Intelligence Limited, Erinys International – Great Britain.

To these we can also add some companies from Australia, South Africa, Peru and others.

Most of these companies have physical security and personnel security missions for extraction industrial objectives of oil, minerals and other investments (transport, constructions, hydrocarbon, etc.). Usually, these are politically, economically unstable states, with developing insurgency conflicts, sabotages, kidnaps and other hostile phenomenon, which are blocking the completion of some projects and threat the security of the personnel who is part of the construction and exploitation.

Investors from low or medium developed states cannot hire but foreign PMSC, as the professional level of the national ones is extremely low. Having hired former fighters who have gained experience in the theatres of operations, these private companies, besides providing security for objectives, they often provide military training for the armies of those countries and of insurgent groups. For example, MPRI trained the Croatian army against Serbia and Wagner trained the armed forces from Sudan. In some of the situations, even the governments of some countries hire PMSC for fights in areas where hiring forces is highly intense. Examples to that end are the Russian company Wagner in Syria, Blackwater in Iraq, Wagner in support of general Haftar, in Libya or KBR in Afghanistan.

With a great number of investments outside the national territory, China cannot rely, for intelligence protection reasons or due to objectives’ physical security ones, only on the participation of private companies from other states, which are rarely friends with China. The investments in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ask for a great number of missions to provide the security of objectives and personnel. This huge project, started in 2013, is president Xi Jinping’s signature and it is the biggest investment of China of all times. Belt involves the road transport and railway corridors, as well as the energy provision from and towards the European Union. Road is about the sea transport and mostly the ports construction in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe. The Chinese investments in this project are developed in 65 countries, among them also politically unstable states and, implicitly, economically and financially vulnerable. In these countries, it is difficult to separate the political and commercial factors.

 Providing the security for a big and diverse number of objectives requires also a larger diversity of the ways and methods to provide the physical security of the infrastructure and personnel, as well as a high-professionalism level. When the project started, China was not fully preoccupied with providing it, with security information and political and economical provisions of the states included in the project. After some failures due to the political risks and criminal violence, they seriously thought of providing the physical, personnel, networks and security systems as well as of collecting intelligence from local and regional environments.

For the first missions on combating the local criminal groups’ violence, the companies which participate to investments have called on China’s People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese military interfered to free some Chinese workers from Libya and Yemen, and the Chinese People’s Police intervened in some minor incidents. As they were working to support some private companies, their actions were outside the law.

Given that, in China, the differences between the commercial and political aspects are not that well shaped as in a democracy, for the PMSC their separation from the Chinese army is also subjected to confusion. This is how the 2015 killing of three Chinese officials, by local terrorist, in Bamako, Mali is explained, as well as the murder of two Chinese professors, in 2017, by the ISIS forces, in Quetta, Pakistan, where Beijing did not want to commit the Chinese army.

The Chinese government started to encourage the private sector to hire PMSC. Currently, in China, there are more than 5000 such companies with more than 3 million employees. Less than 20 such companies are able to act outside the national territory. According to the Chinese law, these companies are not allowed to carry lethal weapons and, hereof, the impossibility to interfere in high-risk environments. This is the reason why they mostly act on the national soil. So their activity is rather based on guarding than on providing security.

Given the low training level of the employees of the Chinese security companies and the fact that they cannot carry lethal weapons they can hardly assume foreign protection missions for the personnel working for the BRI project or physical protection missions in the hostile environment. However, some Chinese companies committed also in such missions, so their participation has created controversies and suspicions over their membership to the Chinese people’s army. Where the missions were successful, the Communist government benefit from the BRI’s effective functioning. If it is a failure, the government has no involvement in it, being only a private initiative.

The more the need to join the fight is bigger, the more the PMSC are better trained and more effective. These are composed of former military which retired from the army and got a job, aware that they will never have the official governmental protection. The salaries they get are at least three times bigger than those of the Chinese military.

The PMSC are politically and especially financially supported by the big private companies, which contract both their missions and their training process. For the training of these companies’ employees and the extension of their mission, at the beginning of 2019, with Erik Prince’s advices, the former founder of the well-known private military company Blackwater, it was founded, in China, the company Frontier Services Group. It is currently building a training center worth of 500k dollars, where around 8 000 people per year will be trained.

The directions of the Chinese government, in the following period, are: the budget increase for these companies, the improvement of the training level within the Western companies, the enhancement of the coordination between the power governmental structures and the private companies, the establishment of a national fund to provide the security of the companies working outside the national territory, using the Chinese satellite system Beidou to the direct access of the PMSC to execute missions.

China’s government is still using the presence of the Chinese security companies to cover the espionage actions in different countries. Huawei Security had set up and keeps video and audio surveillance systems in Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, having an important advantage in the espionage and surveillance missions.

Translated by Andreea Soare