GOMA, DRC — China’s growing investments in the mining sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) allow it to demand special treatment.
The Congolese army has been deployed several times to protect Chinese mining interests in the volatile east of the country. In line with this cooperation, China has also offered training to the Congolese military personnel, as well as security assistance to Chinese companies.
Arms sales are likely to follow, as both Russia and Western partners face new difficulties.
The DRC, Africa’s second-largest country by landmass, is no stranger to insecurities, making investments in the resource-rich nation very risky. In particular, Chinese people – popularly suspected to move around with sizable amounts of money – have become targets of various rebel groups that usually focus on terrorizing Congo’s civilian population.
To mitigate these vulnerabilities, China has recently vowed to strengthen cooperation with the DRC to prevent further kidnappings of its nationals. But even the Congolese army can be hostile to the Chinese, reflecting the complexity of the security situation in this country.
Earlier this year, two Chinese gold miners were killed in an ambush by two colonels of the national army. The attackers were recently sentenced to death, though the sentence is likely to be commuted. Despite the murders, China has nevertheless promised to shore up military assistance to the army of the DRC.
This all comes amid broad protests against the U.N. peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, which dissatisfied segments of DRC society accuse of safeguarding foreign interests. In July, violent demonstrations against MONUSCO left 36 people dead, including four U.N. peacekeepers, after hundreds of protesters set fire to U.N. buildings.
China has kept its forces out of direct engagement in crises in Africa as part of its non-interference policy, but it has contributed significantly to U.N. peacekeeping operations. China contributes more money to the budget for peacekeeping sends more personnel to peacekeeping operations than any other permanent member of the Security Council, enabling it to influence international politics and diplomacy.
The majority of China’s peacekeeping troops are in the U.N. mission in South Sudan, where China has 1,059 troops, police, and experts deployed. By comparison, MONUSCO is China’s fourth-largest U.N. peacekeeping operation, home to 233 Chinese personnel.
The MONUSCO mission has a total of just under 15,000 personnel, meaning the Chinese contingent is only 1.5 percent of the total. The U.N. mission in the DRC is mostly composed of peacekeepers from India (2,320 personnel), Pakistan (1,977), and Bangladesh (1,824). That makes China’s engagement less visible in the eyes of the public, but the presence of Chinese peacekeepers still permits Beijing strengthen its formal ties with the DRC government.
The DRC government has been forced to maneuver given the anger of a large portion of its population. On one side, Kinshasa has assured its people of their commitment to reform – especially in the face of the elections set for next year. As a part of this task, they strike nationalistic tones, and promise the exit of all foreign forces, as demanded by the protesters.
On the other side, the government is realistic about the capabilities of its own army, which stands accused of perpetrating crimes against its own people and of being infiltrated by some of the rebel groups. As a result, they have been in talks with many foreign partners to discuss military assistance as foreign partners lack confidence in the Congolese army.
Western companies have grown increasingly wary of sourcing minerals from the DRC due to human rights abuses in the extractive sector. That reluctance is not shared by the Chinese government and its companies. This has allowed China to increase its extraction of resources – mainly cobalt and copper – from the DRC in recent years.
In 2020, China imported just under $9 billion worth of goods from the DRC, up from just $5.8 billion in 2019. That remarkable jump was not an outlier. China imported goods worth just $1.45 million from the DRC in 1995 – representing average annual growth of over 40 percent. According to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), from 2015 to 2020 China’s imports of cobalt from the DRC ballooned by 191 percent, imports of cobalt oxides by 2,920 percent, and imports of copper ore by 1,670 percent.
China’s increasing imports from the DRC are driven by Beijing’s determination to secure resources critical to a green future, as the clean energy transition has accelerated. More than 50 percent of the cobalt produced globally today goes into rechargeable batteries, but this bluish-gray metal also plays a vital role in military equipment including ammunition, magnets, stealth technology, and jet engines.
Of the 19 cobalt operations in the DRC, 15 are now owned or co-owned by Chinese entities. The five largest Chinese mining corporations with interests in cobalt and copper in the nation have access to credit lines from Chinese state banks totaling an astounding $124 billion.
All told, 70 percent of world’s cobalt is mined in the DRC, and 80 percent of that DRC output then heads to China for processing.
One factor behind China’s growing dominance in the DRC’s mineral sector is the inaction of the U.S. government. After the decades of very close (but also controversial) economic relationships between the United States and the DRC, China has been advancing its interest in this country, facing little or no reaction from the previous three American administrations.
Most notable is the sale of Tenke Fungurume Mining SA, the last significant U.S. investment in DRC cobalt and copper mines. Facing massive debt due to misplaced investments in the oil and gas sector, this DRC-based entity was sold to China Molybdenum one month before U.S. President Donald Trump vacated its office. The deal was backed by Chinese state-owned banks, which were able to facilitate the transaction within the short time frame.
Now, China’s sway over the DRC is causing deep concern as U.S. policymakers slowly catch up to Beijing in realizing the value of having access to key resources. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has sold off a significant portion of its stockpile of vital resources, including cobalt. Experts argue that this situation creates a risk to the national security of the U.S. and other nations as China may exploit this vulnerability in a similar manner to how Russia uses oil.
To help protect its interests in the DRC, China seeks guaranteed, unrestricted access to important decision-makers who may advance, safeguard, and even give top priority to Chinese strategic objectives. To build relationships, China reaches out to industry leaders, local governments, the media, and public intellectuals.
Military assistance is one of the tools China uses to secure the unconstrained flow of the minerals for processing. As noted above, offering military assistance allows Beijing to help protest its own investments and Chinese nationals in the DRC, but it also helps China build relationships with military officials, locking in longer-term gains.
With its investments, military assistance, and other outreach, China’s position in the DRC has been cemented for many years to come.