In March of 1971, the People’s Republic of China and Cameroon established diplomatic relations. The commencement of relations was mutually beneficial to both countries. China pledged to cease its support for the Union of the People’s Congress (UPC), a Marxist guerrilla group that had been waging an insurgency against the government of Cameroon. Cameroon would recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and sever ties with the Republic of China (ROC), otherwise known as Taiwan
Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadu Ahidjo, visited China in 1973 to meet with Mao Zedong making him the first African head of state to visit China after the most violent periods of the cultural revolution. Ahidjo returned to Beijing four years later to meet with Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng.
During this period, cooperation between China and Cameroon largely focused on high visibility projects, particularly regarding infrastructure and government facilities. This included the Chinese government assisting in the construction of the Presidential Palace in Yaoundé in 1977, along with giving the Cameroonian government a $75 million loan to construct the Lagdo Dam in 1982. Accords were signed during the 1970s and 1980s to solidify cooperation on trade and cultural exchanges. The relationship continued even after Ahidjo resigned from the presidency in 1982 and was succeeded by the country’s current president, Paul Biya.
Military cooperation between Cameroon and China began on a limited scale during the 1970s, focusing on the sale of small arms and military training. By 1982 Cameroon and China had already signed at least seven cooperation accords that resulted in the sale of small arms, patrol boats, radio equipment, and trucks. Delegations from Cameroon traveled to China to receive training on the arms the country had purchased. Such visits often occurred at a high level, including a delegation in 1979 led by Cameroon’s Minister of State Affairs for Armed Forces Sadou Daoudou. Similar visits occurred after Biya became president, such as a delegation to China in 1989 led by Major General Pierre Semengue. Chinese military officials also visited Cameroon to discuss cooperation, although the delegations were headed by mid-level officials in the People Liberation Army (PLA) compared to the senior Cameroonian officials who led delegations to China. One of the earliest examples was the 1979 visit to Cameroon by Liao Hansheng, who at the time was the PLA’s political commissioner for the Nanjing Military Zone. Such exchanges continued into the ‘90s, such as the visit of Lieutenant General Zhang Taiheng, the commander of Jinan Military Zone, to Cameroon in 1993.
Political cooperation between Beijing and Yaoundé on matters of international politics started to become visible in the ‘90s as well. In 1995, in the lead up to a vote at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) that would have condemned China for its domestic human rights abuses, the then Vice Premier of China Li Lanqing visited Cameroon, which was a member of the commission. Cameroon voted against the resolution, which failed to pass by a margin of one vote.
A New Century, a New Era
The first high-level visit to Cameroon by members of the PLA occurred in 2001, when Deputy Chief of the General Staff Wu Quanxu, who was also an alternate member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee, led a delegation to Cameroon. The delegation visited both the economic capital of Douala and the political capital of Yaoundé. In Douala, the delegation was accompanied by the local governor to military instillations, including the Douala naval base, and met with officers trained in China. In Yaoundé, the delegation held meetings with Laurent Esso, who was then the minister of state for defense and currently serves as the Cameroonian minister of justice. The Chinese delegation held meetings with virtually all organs of the Cameroonian military. The following year, another delegation from the PLA visited Cameroon headed by General Jiang Futang, the political commissar of Shenyang Military Zone.
The delegation that Xu led to Cameroon laid the foundation for extended military and political cooperation between Yaoundé and Beijing. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, cooperation between the two countries expanded greatly, with a new emphasis on high-level visits and cooperation in international politics. In 2002, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited Cameroon, and a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Yaoundé and Beijing “maintained close political exchanges” and “have the same or similar viewpoints on major international issues.” In 2003, Biya visited China and the Chinese government thanked Cameroon for “its support for the reunification of China and mutual support with China on human rights and other international issues.” In 2007, the first Confucius Institute in the country was opened at the International Relationship Institute of Cameroon, an organ of the University of Yaoundé II, which has trained diplomats for decades.
The climax of this period in relations was the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Cameroon in 2007. During this visit, accords were signed on a broad array of issues, including telecommunications and people-to-people exchanges. Hu said, “China and Africa have never tried to impose their social and economic development models on others,” which could have easily been alluding to international criticism of Cameroon’s human rights record. Biya stated that “China is a great friend of Cameroon and Cameroon is a sincere friend of China.”
The largest change in the relationship between Beijing and Yaoundé was the expansion (and public acknowledgement) of cooperation on matters of international politics. Defense ties between the two countries also expanded, particularly regarding the training of members of the Cameroonian Military in China. Each year, the quantity of Cameroonians receiving military training in China increased, the majority of whom spent anywhere from six months to several years at the National Defense University in Beijing.
The relationship between Cameroon and China was not without flare-ups, however. Tensions arose about illegal fishing by Chinese vessels off the coast of Cameroon. This was encapsulated by the high-profile seizure of a Chinese trawler by the Cameroonian Navy in 2008. Regardless, the cooperation between the two countries expanded during this period laying the groundwork for even more in-depth political and military cooperation between Beijing and Yaoundé during the next decade.
The 2010s: Intensified Military Cooperation
During the last decade, military cooperation between China and Cameroon both increased and became more public. This is visible in both the sale of Chinese weaponry to the Cameroonian army and the defense cooperation agreements that were signed. In another indication, China appointed its first Defense Attaché to its Embassy in Yaoundé in 2013.
Between 2012 and 2014 alone, 10 recorded shipments of armaments were made from China to Cameroon. The deliveries to the Cameroonian military were diverse, ranging from transport aircraft to combat helicopters. It is not only the number of weapons delivered that is noteworthy, but also the shift from the sale of small arms that had previously dominated military transactions between the two countries to larger and more sophisticated weaponry. For instance, during 2013, surface-to-air missiles were delivered in addition to armed personal carriers. Other types of weaponry delivered to Cameroon from China during this period include but are not limited to fire-controlled radars, patrol craft, and multiple types of infantry fighting vehicles. Much of the artillery delivered to Cameroon from China, in particular the armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, were first used in combating the terror group Boko Haram in the country’s Far North Region. However, much of it has since been moved to the northwest and southwest regions of the country, where the government has committed grave human rights abuses in a war against Anglophone separatists.
Another shift in the defense relationship between Beijing and Yaoundé that emerged was the public singing of cooperation agreements regarding the military along with defense matters being included in bilateral discussions between the two governments. For instance, when then Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu visited Cameroon in 2011, he proposed that Yaoundé acquire patrol craft for the Cameroonian Navy. When Biya visited China later that same year, an agreement for the acquisition was reached that would end up being financed by the Export-Import Bank of China. Cameroonian naval engineers traveled to the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao to oversee and participate in their construction, and the tests of the vessels were overseen by the Comptroller General of Cameroon’s army. Chinese personnel also began to assist in the maintenance of the Cameroonian naval base in Douala. Further agreements on defense cooperation have been signed as recently as 2018 when China agreed to provide Cameroon $8 million to purchase military equipment.
The military cooperation between Beijing and Yaoundé has also expanded to multilateral issues including maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. China’s interest in the Gulf of Guinea largely stems from the Chinese fishing vessels operating there, some of which have fallen victim to the growing piracy in the Gulf. In 2010, a Chinese vessel and seven of its crew members were held hostage off the coast of Cameroon. Since then, the Chinese military has begun actively cooperating with the Cameroonian Navy on maritime security, such as when the 16th Chinese Naval Escort Taskforce conducted the first anti-piracy drills between the two countries. China has also provided security assistance to Cameroon through regional bodies, including providing $25 million worth of military equipment to an African Union Logistics hub in the country.
Solidarity at International Fora
Another development in the relationship between China and Cameroon in recent years is the direct support of each other’s positions in international bodies, a change from the verbal pledges to cooperate on international politics that previously dominated the relationship. Cameroon has backed China’s position regarding its crackdown on the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, going as far as co-hosting an event with China at the United Nations on the matter. Likewise, China has opposed discussions about the conflict in Cameroon’s two Anglophone Regions at the United Nations, saying at an informal briefing on the subject in 2019 that the crisis is an aspect of Cameroon’s internal affairs and not a threat to international security and therefore should not be discussed at the forum.
Since diplomatic relations between Beijing and Yaoundé were established in 1961, the relationship between the two countries has grown from focusing mainly on infrastructure and symbolism to one that has seen deep cooperation on matters of defense and international politics. Given the international scrutiny that Cameroon continuously faces from the West regarding its domestic policies, it is likely that defense and political ties between Beijing and Yaoundé will continue to deepen in the coming years. The current trajectory will likely continue, absent a political transition in the country that would see Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, leave the presidency.
R. Maxwell Bone is an MPhil Candidate in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. He has conducted fieldwork in Cameroon and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. His writing has appeared in the Diplomat, World Politics Review, The New humanitarian, among other outlets. He lives in Cambridge, England. Follow him on Twitter @maxbone55.