On August 9, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a part of a three-country visit to Africa. The previous day, Blinken spoke in South Africa, outlining the U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa.
Blinken stressed “the connection between democracy and security”; food insecurity; and COVID-19-related “economic pain,” exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The White House released an accompanying fact sheet. It claimed the U.S. and its allies across the world “increasingly regard Africa as integral to their national security” but also included this harsh assessment of China:
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC), by contrast, sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.”
China took umbrage. In response, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted side-by-side photographs from Africa, apparently to draw a contrast.
One shows a Chinese surveyor, with the caption: “China shares mapping technique in Africa.” The other, with a U.S. soldier crouching over an African aiming a rifle, is captioned: “The U.S. offers shooting training in Africa.”
Zhao’s tweet: “#China brings techniques to #Africa. The #US brings violence to Africa.”
That is false.
The 10-year-old photo actually shows a U.S. Marine training a member of the Uganda People’s Defense Force in combat marksmanship.
The Ugandan soldiers were combat engineers receiving counterinsurgency training to fight Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, a Somali Islamist militant group.
The combat engineers were sent to support Ugandan infantry already deployed as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a regional peace-keeping mission unanimously approved by the United Nations Security Council, which includes China, on December 6, 2006.
In other words, China had approved of the very training shown in the photo.
AMISOM's mandate recently ended on March 31, and it was replaced by an African Union Transition Mission in Somalia.
In August 2021, Dai Bing, the charge d'affaires of China's permanent mission to the United Nations, also expressed China’s support for AMISOM.
Similar images of Chinese troops training soldiers in Africa are also publicly available.
So, what is China really up to in Africa? It's a mixed bag.
For one, China has outpaced the United States on the development front. In April, Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told the VOA’s Kate Bartlett that aside from foreign aid, China is a bigger economic player on the continent than the U.S. in every area.
China’s investment in Africa is tied to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its $1 trillion trade and diplomatic program to connect with Eurasia and Africa.
The Indian academic Brahma Chellaney and various Western officials have accused China of engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy under the BRI, by which unsustainable debt is leveraged for geopolitical ends. Beijing and some independent Western analysts dispute that China has been so onerous as a lender.
On the military front, Bejing has an increasing presence in Africa, selling arms and providing training.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported in March that China was the third-largest major arms supplier to Africa from 2017-2021, accounting for 10% of shipments.
Russia was by far the largest supplier of major arms to Africa, accounting for 44% of the total. The United States was second, at 17%.
As in the case of Myanmar’s military regime, China sells arms “with the full knowledge they would likely be used in attacks against civilians,” the U.N.'s special rapporteur on Myanmarr reported in February. Academic analysts say China maintains a “no questions asked” arms export model, with human rights considered an “internal affair.”
The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal of the United States Air Force and Space Force, has accused Beijing of “implicitly” sanctioning “the unrestrained flow of weapons to conflict zones.”
For example, while the United States was training Ugandan forces in 2012 to combat an insurgency in Somalia, weapons from China “surfaced in a string of U.N. investigations in war zones stretching from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Ivory Coast, Somalia and Sudan,” The Washington Post reported.
The newspaper noted that China “stood apart from other major arms exporters, including Russia, for its assertive challenge to U.N. authority,” stifling attempts by U.N. experts to track the flow of arms to Africa and elsewhere.
Meantime, China is also pushing a Global Security Initiative to realize its own vision of “indivisible security.”
Beijing presents the initiative as a truly multilateral program to “maintain world peace and prevent conflicts and wars.” Critics say it “would usher in a global system friendlier to repressive regimes than the current order, grounded as it is in democratic ideals.”
Through that initiative, China aims, in part, to beef up its military presence on the continent.
A July 31 article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), headlined “China using its new Global Security Initiative to build military standing in Africa,” states as much:
“China is promoting its new Global Security Initiative as a way to boost ties with African nations through military training, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism – even as Western powers like France and the U.S. face resistance or are cutting back on their African military operations.”
The SCMP report noted that Beijing has “contributed thousands of troops to the United Nations peace-keeping missions,” is “training more military officials,” “and seeks further involvement in the peace process in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions.”
Writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Tanchum, an academic and expert on Sub-Saharan Africa, said China had provided “more troops to U.N. Security Council peace-keeping missions than all the other U.N.S.C. permanent members combined.”
Tanchum argues that under the auspices of the U.N., Beijing is “able to portray its unilateral military presence as part of the international effort to combat piracy and protect global trade passing through the Suez Canal.”
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government, wrote in a December 2020 study: “Chinese leaders aspire to project force and be capable of fighting a limited war overseas to protect its interests in countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”
To achieve that end, Tanchum wrote, “Beijing has integrated a military and security component into its economic partnerships with African states,” weaving China’s defense presence into “the fabric of the continent’s development.”
Africa is also the site of China’s first military base abroad.
In 2017, China opened a military base in Djibouti, an east African state in the Horn of Africa (Somali Peninsula). The base is intended, in part, to facilitate participation in U.N. peace-keeping missions and anti-piracy operations.
Reports suggest that China is also looking to open a second naval base on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, in the central African country of Equatorial Guinea.