“Suspicion” and “concern” are not the words China associates with Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner, a notorious Russian paramilitary organization. At least on paper. With Russia-China “no limits partnership” making headlines, Beijing has seemingly accepted the military contractor linked to outspoken oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. China’s acceptance of Wagner is a complex and controversial development in its foreign policy. While turning a blind eye to the company’s activities may offer Beijing strategic benefits, it also risks undermining China’s reputation and interests in Africa and beyond.
The Chinese web has plenty of articles and user-generated content explaining what Wagner is. For example, Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu, or Do You Know, which is akin to Quora, has a thread on Wagner that has generated 3,285 discussions and 2.14 million views.
Some pieces on the history of the company note that its fighters “performed heroically on the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield” and have “a typical Eastern Slavic character: tough, belligerent, and have a strong sense of national pride and belonging” – not exactly a classic description of the mercenary force with a track record of systemic human rights and international humanitarian law violations.
Overall, Beijing has been careful when it comes to dealing with or employing private military contractors. For the most part, China has limited its own involvement to private security company activities that focus on protecting a single location. Reportedly, Chinese security contractors are not even allowed to be armed. President Xi Jinping has seemingly made a strategic decision to steer clear of regional conflicts and the kind of unauthorized violence often associated with the Russian PMC.
Despite this, China recognizes that Wagner is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, some Chinese experts have praised Wagner’s performance and even called it a new model of private military companies due to its unique organizational structure and tactics.
“Wagner fighters don’t worry about consequences. Their reason for existence is to fight, regardless of sacrifices,” Zhikai (Victor) Gao, Deputy Director of the Center for China and Globalization, said. “Wagner mercenaries have played a unique role and achieved many things on the battlefield that the regular Russian army cannot accomplish.”
However, China’s tolerance for Wagner’s actions is not absolute. In particular, China is concerned about the implications of Wagner’s involvement in conflicts in Africa.
China has been increasing its economic and diplomatic engagement with African countries in recent years through different projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure development strategy.
Wagner’s presence in Africa could potentially undermine China’s efforts to promote stability and development on the continent. Additionally, Wagner’s activities could be seen as a challenge to China’s growing influence in the region.
While China has not publicly criticized Wagner, its officials have reportedly expressed concern about the potential risks associated with the company’s presence in countries where Beijing has significant economic and political interests.
The situation has become particularly complex after the killing of nine Chinese nationals in Central African Republic (CAR) in March, right before President Xi landed in Moscow with an official visit. The men worked in a gold mine operated by the Chinese Gold Coast Group. There were competing claims assigning responsibility, with fingers pointed both at local rebels and Wagner mercenaries who have been providing security and training government troops in CAR.
Chinese and Russian officials condemned the attack. Some Russian Telegram news channels claimed, however, that President Xi raised the incident during meetings in the Kremlin and asked for a thorough investigation, reminding Moscow of China’s strategic interests in Africa and requesting better coordination of activities in the region.
While some netizens in China entertained the idea of Wagner’s involvement, thinking it was plausible that the PMC wanted to claim the mine promised by the government as payment for the services, others bluntly called it impossible, suggesting that Russian mercenaries were blamed by the Western media – and the United States – to sow discord between Moscow and Beijing.
Geopolitical interests aside, several Chinese companies have also recently made headlines because of their ties to Wagner.
In January, the US Department of the Treasury designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization. In the release, it also announced sanctions against Spacety China, an entity that supplied imagery to Russia’s Terra Tech to ultimately enable Wagner combat operations in Ukraine.
In an exclusive interview with the Global Times, a daily newspaper under the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship outlet, the People’s Daily, Spacety insisted it had no business dealings with either Terra Tech or Wagner.
“In the future, we will continue to strictly abide by the laws and regulations of relevant countries in our R&D and operations activities, and to provide the most advanced technology, the most reliable products, and the best services to build a better future for human life,” it said.
In his turn, Wagner’s Prigozhin claimed there was no need for the PMC to purchase satellite images from China because it had had some 20 satellites, both radar and optical, for a year and a half.
There were also reports of Wagner working with Chinese intelligence services on explosive-tipped swarm drones, but here, again, Prigozhin stated his fighters could figure such technology out on their own.
Meanwhile, several Russian media pieces have recently focused on Prigozhin and Wagner’s alleged popularity in China. One article suggested the PMC was trending on the Chinese web, with videos featuring Prigozhin and the fighters getting likes “en masse.” Another user-generated piece said Chinese experts noted Russian mercenaries’ success and were debating whether China needed a Wagner too. And in an address published by a Telegram military news channel, a Chinese national with a Wagner patch on his sleeve praised Russia’s military actions saying “Glory to Russia! Destroy the Nazis!”
Wagner and its mercenaries are a sensitive spot in the “no limits partnership” between Russia and China. Their operations in Africa may require more thorough monitoring and deconfliction in order to protect Moscow’s increasingly important relationship with Beijing. Typical Wagner’s approach of handling conflict with violence has the potential to cause tensions between the two nations and create a point of friction.