U.S. Africa Command officials have long cautioned that Russia and China are trying to expand their control in Africa. But the command believes the U.S. can foil that influence by developing strong relationships with African states and becoming their “partner of choice.”
“I think the most important part of our approach is, it’s about relationships, it’s not about access to a resource or to a mineral, or to sales of U.S. equipment,” AFRICOM director of operations U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Gayler told reporters Jan. 16. “I think the relationships we build will have a far-lasting impact.”
U.S. troops in Africa are there primarily to help overthrow the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups like al-Shabab, as are troops from allied nations like France. But Russia and China are largely absent from the effort to eliminate terrorism in the region, according to AFRICOM.
“It is important to remember that outside of selling arms for their own economic benefit, China and Russia are not doing much to help counter extremist groups to rob Africans of their future,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, AFRICOM deputy director of intelligence, told reporters.
Russia is the top arms exporter to African countries and was responsible for 39 percent of arms exports to the continent between 2013 and 2017, followed by China who provided 17 percent of arms exports to Africa in that same time period, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports.
AFRICOM characterized arms sales between Russia, China, and African states as a business-related exchange. Furthermore, military agreements are sometimes coupled with clauses requiring states to purchase arms, meaning the agreements can pave the way for African states to receive equipment at a lower price tag, Gayler said.
“Where they go with certain other arms sales or other activities, oftentimes, that’s an economic decision for them,” Gayler said of African partners.
On top of the arms sales, Russia has inked more than 20 bilateral military agreements with African states since 2015. While Gayler said these agreements are not “worrisome” to AFRICOM, he noted the command was monitoring the activity.