A U.S.-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, says that Chinese funded buildings in Africa could be a likely vector for spying.
In a report released early last week, the think thank notes that Chinese companies, all of which are legally obliged to help the Chinese Communist Party gather intelligence, have built at least 186 government buildings in Africa and at least 14 sensitive intra governmental telecommunication networks.
The report cites French newspaper Le Monde which reported in 2018 that servers installed by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the African Union (AU) headquarters were daily uploading their content to servers based in Shanghai, China.
An inspection of the building—built by the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation—also uncovered listening devices hidden throughout the building.
The Financial Times newspaper has also confirmed Le Monde’s story.
But China rejected the accusations terming them baseless.China’s ambassador to the AU, Kuang Weilin, called the article “ridiculous and preposterous” and said its publication was intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the continent.
“China-Africa relations have brought about benefits and a lot of opportunities. Africans are happy with it. Others are not.” said Weilin at the time.
But China’s motives for investing so heavily in building infrastructure for African governments is suspect because these projects generally are not profitable.
And the dangers are many observes Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa at the Heritage Foundation and the author of the report.
“The intelligence gathered in Africa could facilitate Beijing’s influence operations on the continent,recruit intelligence assets at senior levels of African governments and Gain insight into U.S. diplomatic strategies, military counterterrorism operations, or joint military exercises,” says Mr Meservey.
At a time when China is increasingly becoming Africa’s leading trade partner globally, Mr Meservey says the intelligence from the continent could further put China ahead of the competition curve and disadvantage U.S. companies competing against Chinese firms for Africa’s growing economic opportunities.
China is by far the largest bilateral lender to the continent,and Chinese companies dominate Africa’s lucrative infrastructure construction sector.
In 2018, China inked a deal to construct ECOWAS headquarters in Nigeria Tat a cost of US$31.6. The new building is expected to consolidate ECOWAS operations in one building from the three it now uses. China has also agreed to maintain the new building for three years following its completion.
According to the report, African leaders are likely aware of at least some of the vulnerabilities such Chinese gifts bring—and are either too far under the influence of Beijing to resist, believe that Beijing’s surveillance does not matter or that they can manage the challenge.