China in Sub-Saharan Africa: Sanction-Proof Supply Lines and Dual-Use Ports

Far-flung influence: the port of Luanda in Angola is one of a number in Africa that have been developed with Chinese financing. Image: Eric Lafforgue / Alamy

Chinese development financing in sub-Saharan Africa has sought, among other aims, to bolster Beijing’s supply chain resilience and dual port maritime strength. While this may enhance its ability to raise geopolitical tensions or conduct territorial expansion, complications remain around the execution of such a strategy.

China has developed significant global influence through the use of development financing, spending $1 trillion since 2013, including $160 billion in Africa. This article is based on research conducted into Chinese influence in sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on Angola, Zambia and Kenya. The study involved interviews with key figures such as senior business officials, Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) and state-owned bank managers, investigative journalists and personal contacts within the former intelligence sphere, all of whom had first-hand or extensive experience of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deals.

The research uncovered how Beijing's overarching strategy on the African continent seeks to court foreign policy influence in order to sanction-proof supply chains and develop dual-use ports, despite the doubtful resilience of such a strategy outside of peacetime conditions. A former senior manager in a Chinese SOE stated, ‘the large SOEs in the region have very limited freedom. It is guided by the Central Government from the way they are staffed at the high level and the overarching direction they pursue’.

Sanction-Proofing Supply Chains

A core component of this strategy is China's use of financing for ‘resource-led diplomacy’ to facilitate access to raw materials and minerals for electronics, renewable energy and hi-tech industries. According to a Brookings report, by 2019, minerals and fossil fuels accounted for 35% of exports to China from 60% of African countries. Trade between China and Africa saw a 1,900% increase from 2000, the year of the first Forum on China–Africa Cooperation summit. Yet access to raw materials masks half the story.

Crucially, China is tailoring funding to build bespoke infrastructure (roads/railways/ports) for the transport of raw materials in a sanction-resilient supply chain. Securing raw materials in Zambia led China to enhance strategic supply routes to port sites in Lobito, Luanda and Mombasa. Indeed, based on Observer Research Foundation statistics, the use of financing to secure access to raw materials in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia accounted for 60% of all trade between China and Africa. A head of a leading private intelligence group suggested that securing access to copper is ‘the be all and end all’ for China–Zambia financing, which is part of a wider global strategy to ‘control the copper market and deny Western companies access by removing Western powers from supply chains’.

Beijing views Zambia as ‘land-linked’ rather than ‘land-locked’. Interviewees described the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation’s operations in Zambia as intricately tied to the Central Government, having previously been part of the Chinese Ministry of Railways and currently being overseen by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council. Its activities in Zambia expose Beijing’s clear strategy of securing raw material supply routes in order to enhance China’s energy security in case of future sanctions. Indeed, China focuses financing on specific strategic roads and railways which ‘creates a corridor so most of the lithium, copper, cobalt etc. can access the coast and go back to China’ via the Tazara Railway and roads connecting Zambia, the DRC, South Africa and Angola. A former Nigerian presidential advisor who had worked on several Chinese BRI deals suggested that ‘through helping with infrastructure projects China is securing the ability to move things directly from Zambia and the surrounding region out to Mombasa and the African coast to China’.

In Kenya, China secures strategic supply routes by using it as the maritime gateway for raw materials from the hinterland. A former senior official within an Investment Banking department at the China Construction Bank (CCB) suggested that Chinese SOEs in Kenya were working in concert. The state-owned China State Railway Group which was responsible for the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the Nairobi-Thika Highway Project purportedly worked in collaboration with mining SOEs in neighbouring countries to improve China's raw material supply routes. Moreover, following interviews with senior government officials, a senior source suggested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued directives to ensure a strategic foothold in the country, meaning the SGR and associated Chinese-funded infrastructure projects became ‘too big to fail’.

Corroborating this, the CEO of a prominent Chinese advisory financing firm, reporting on conversations with Chinese officials, conveyed that ‘China saw Kenya as a key logistics hub’. Mombasa’s deepwater port made it ‘the best strategic location and a hub of the large region of East and Central Africa’. A former UK intelligence official stated, ‘China wants to be a rival to India in the Indian Ocean. They want to be able to get access to those resources and minerals and they view Kenya as the artery to the continent’.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that if the US and other countries cease or begin to strongly limit cooperation, China's supply chain resilience is already in place

A similar motivation was found in Angola, a country with vast oil reserves. AidData investment figures and the CEO of an Africa–China investment advisory firm who worked on Chinese-Angolan oil deals revealed that several Chinese-financed projects were tailored to suit Chinese supply chain interests, including the $362 million Benguela Railway, the $923 million construction work to Caio port in Cabina, and efforts to bolster raw material strategic supply routes via the port of Lobito, Luanda and the Tazara Railway. Indeed, China financed the $1.5 billion refurbishment of the Lobito-Benguela railway corridor from the cobalt belt in the southern DRC to the port of Lobito, freeing up capacity to carry 20 million tonnes of export cargo annually. Having spoken to senior Beijing officials, an interviewee suggested that the MFA and Peking University developed a ‘resources for infrastructure financing’ framework and used Angola as the pioneering example over 15 years ago. Further reports suggest current plans exist to connect the railway with Zambia’s 1860 km Chinese-financed Tazara Railway, giving China export routes from the west coast through the raw material-rich heartland to Tanzania's east-coast Dar es Salaam port.

Such examples of Chinese financing in sub-Saharan Africa aimed at sanction-proofing supply routes are generalisable to countries including the DRC, Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and several East African countries. A former UK intelligence official declared, ‘they wish to keep plenty of strings to their energy and mineral supply chain bow and this explains a lot of their development financing. They are looking now to fortify their trading networks against a possible US and European sanctions movement that would come with an invasion of Taiwan or increased geopolitical tension’.

A lawyer previously working on Chinese BRI deals stated, ‘it is clear that China is working together with the development banks to get the money in, buy the asset, build the infrastructure around it, get it onto a railway and get it to the port’. A former senior manager in a large SOE supported this view, stating that ‘those harbours and railways are not put in place by us just for fun or development help or a small return on a loan. If we need a railway to reach the next country for this supply chain, we will put it in place to reach those materials’. Indeed, a former senior official within an Investment Banking department at the CCB insisted that China does not trust international markets and wants to be self-sufficient to prevent the threat of Western sanctions. The ultimate goal is to ensure that if the US and other countries cease or begin to strongly limit cooperation, China's supply chain resilience is already in place.

Dual Port Use

Having bolstered supply chain resilience, China is also ensuring that a significant amount of its port construction is being completed to a ‘dual port use specification’ so as to avoid Western suspicion of PLA Navy (PLAN) build-up. Chinese-funded ports are built to accommodate commercial trade, but can – with significant risks and complications (see below) – be flipped to military use as the depth and landing/docking zones are built to PLAN specifications. A regional director at a private intelligence firm and former UK intelligence official with experience of BRI port deals pointed to secure, dual-use facilities in several countries including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Kenya.

China’s own 2019 defence white paper stated that the PLA was developing ‘overseas logistical facilities’ to ‘address deficiencies in overseas operations’, calling for a shift from ‘near coast active defence’ to ‘far seas manoeuvring operations’. It claimed that China must establish its ‘perceived status as a Great Power’ by advancing ‘China's escalating global interests, particularly those associated with the BRI, including infrastructure, assets, personnel and control over sea lanes’. Moreover, China’s capstone doctrinal text, the Science of Military Strategy (2020 edition), highlights the ‘two Oceans’ approach in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the PLAN’s desire to ‘establish ourselves’ in both by constructing ‘maritime strategic support points’.

The aforementioned senior official within the Investment Banking department at the CCB confirmed this, suggesting China is securing influence in Kenya as part of its effort to become a significant ‘ocean-faring nation’, constructing the port of Mombasa to be compatible with PLAN specifications. Indeed, the PLA Military Transport Academy suggests the dual use of Mombasa port could help solve the Malacca Dilemma by ‘reducing transport pressure and avoiding waterways that could be closed by adversaries’. Satellite imagery reveals the 245 m military-grade dock could berth two Type 056 corvettes and any surface combatant up to the Type 055D guided-missile destroyer. Additionally, it reveals the 164 m dock could accommodate one surface combatant up to the Type 052D destroyer, with the port also having the capacity to refuel most PLAN ships and act as a logistics hub for tankers directly facilitating the replenishment of PLAN ships in open waters.

The previously cautious consensus around Chinese financing motivations may no longer apply to the strengthening China of today

The PLAN’s future ambitions for dual use of Angola’s deepwater Luanda Atlantic port reveal a similar story. In addition to the port of Lobito, Angola’s 1,600 km coastline has four other operational seaports, significant portions of which China has financed. A private military investigation found that Luanda port can accommodate Type 052D and 055 destroyers and most PLAN vessels for replenishment. In 2016, the Export-Import Bank of the Republic of China (CHEXIM) financed the China Energy Engineering Corporation to build Caio port in Cabinda, Angola’s first deepwater port. China-Sonangol is currently involved in constructing another deepwater Angolan facility, the Barra do Dande port 50 km north of Luanda, which will include 29 storage tanks, a container and multi-use terminal and a petroleum support zone. According to China Dialogue, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) acquired a 30% stake in the Portuguese construction company Mota-Engil, which secured a 30-year concession on the port of Lobito. Moreover, a CLBrief report indicated that China International Trust Investment Corporation and Shandong Port Group secured a 20-year concession to manage and operate Angola’s port of Lobito multipurpose container and general cargo terminal.

Evidence provided by a regional director of a private intelligence firm showed that, via financing, China is seeking access and control over deepwater maritime ports on Africa’s Atlantic coast for commercial and military purposes. Secret PLAN documents revealed plans to link Chinese port financing to strategic military motivations in Angola, Kenya and 11 other countries. Indeed, China’s Djibouti military base disguises a more subtle Chinese military strategy of dual-use ports across the continent.

Ports on the Atlantic coast should perhaps raise the most concern in Washington. A traditional Chinese inter-continental ballistic missile has a range of about 6,000 km, meaning that it can be launched from eastern China to hit the west coast of the US. Chinese nuclear submarines can currently remain at sea for long periods, but they do not have the ability to obtain food and resupplies when operating in the Atlantic. Therefore, a resupply base on the African Atlantic coast would put Chinese submarines in range of New York, Washington DC and Atlanta. With Africa remaining an uncontested space for Chinese development financing, the US’s internal security is at risk.

Indeed, CHEXIM financed, and CCCC First Harbour Engineering Co built, Equatorial Guinea's Bata deepwater port in 2006, with the China Road and Bridge Corp making significant updates in 2016. The CEO of a leading China-focused intelligence firm stated, ‘don't be fooled by the lack of hard arms sales. China now owns 93 ports in 53 countries’ including Nigeria, Tanzania and Namibia, with China’s Ambassador to Namibia calling Walvis Bay port the ‘most brilliant pearl’ on Africa’s Atlantic coast. Of African BRI countries, 70% are located on the north, east, west or south coast with key investments made in ports near the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, including Djibouti port, Port Sudan, Port Said–Port Tewfik, Ain Sokhna port, Zarzis port, El Hamdania port and the newly financed and commissioned Lekki deep seaport in Lagos, West Africa’s largest. Ultimately, the dual-use model allows China to downplay the military significance of its port investments, while providing access to several military facilities. The Economic Times reported that a total of 46 African ports have been built or financed – or are currently operated – by Chinese state-owned shipping corporations.

However, despite such developments, existential alarmism when analysing these findings would be premature. An important caveat is that the above analysis assumes peacetime conditions. In conflict, China will find protecting port infrastructure and negotiating access to be crucial stumbling blocks to its dual-use port model. Protecting the aforementioned ports from incoming enemy fire – especially without adequate missile defence systems, bunkers and existent fortified supply depots for fuel and munitions, would involve increasingly complex military planning of a scale and capability that the Chinese military complex does not yet possess. Moreover, any Chinese troop movement (such as reinforcements) would require significant negotiations with the host country. As such, troublesome coercion tactics against countries that China relies on for supply routes (such as Angola or Kenya) would be risky and unproven.


Africa provides an important and long-standing model for China’s global financing efforts. The previously cautious consensus around Chinese financing motivations may no longer apply to the strengthening China of today. Over a 20-year period, Chinese financing within sub-Saharan Africa has significantly bolstered Beijing’s ‘sanction-proof’ supply chain resilience and dual port maritime strength, perhaps enhancing its ability to raise geopolitical tensions or conduct territorial expansion (such as against Taiwan). Yet, serious complications around the execution of such a strategy outside of peacetime conditions remain pertinent. As the US–China relationship moves into stormier waters, China will continue to expand its naval reach and supply chain resilience, particularly as its declining economic surplus will see it concentrate financing on geostrategically important locations off the Atlantic coast and in the Indian Ocean.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Benedict Hamlyn

Associate Fellow

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