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US cause in Africa not helped after AFRICOM’S comments

Eric Olander
By Eric Olander

Managing Editor, The China Africa Project

Posted on Wednesday, 12 May 2021 14:47

China Djibouti Military Base
A ship carrying Chinese military personnel departs a port in Zhanjiang, south China's Guangdong Province, heading toward Djibouti. (Wu Dengfeng/Xinhua News Agencyvia AP)

General Stephen Townsend, the top commander for US forces in Africa, AFRICOM, thought it would be a good idea to re-surface the old trope that China is looking to build a new military outpost in Africa, this time on the West Coast.

Just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken re-hashed 10-year-old talking points when he spoke of China’s engagement in Africa during an online event two weeks ago, General Townsend is trafficking in equally stale rumours that date back at least 7 years, if not longer.

“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,” Townsend told the Associated Press for a story published on 6 May. “They’re a long way toward establishing that in Djibouti. Now they’re casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there.”

Wait, what?

Let’s dissect what the general’s saying here:

The Chinese are looking for a base but he doesn’t provide any specifics or any evidence to back up the claim. Again, we’ve heard this before… for years in fact. For all we know the general doesn’t have any more refined intelligence than the same speculation that’s been floating around African social media all these years about a new Chinese base in Namibia or was it Kenya or maybe Angola?

The insinuation that a new base in West Africa would somehow be used in a future conflict with the United States is just fantasy. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a future Chinese base on the West Coast would be comparable in size to the current PLA Navy outpost in Djibouti with around 3,000-4,000 sailors.

For a military the size and power of the United States, there is no way that should be considered to be a credible threat, especially given the fact that the Chinese do not have the command and control abilities to operate their navy that far away.

After the AP story was published, I reached out to four sources, two in China and two in the US, who closely follow Chinese military affairs to see if they have any insight on the General’s claim.

None of them had a clue and the consensus among all four was that the General was really directing his message to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to ensure he gets a larger slice of the defence budget dedicated to confronting China around the world. If so, it would be another indicator of how much of US messaging in Africa is actually aimed at audiences in Washington, rather than at African stakeholders.

The fact is there is no evidence whatsoever to support General Townsend and the Pentagon’s assertions that the Chinese are looking to build more military bases in Africa. If they had the evidence they would reveal it, but they don’t because it’s just not there. Are Chinese military attachés in West Africa talking about it? Sure, maybe, probably but that’s the kind of thing military attachés are supposed to do but that doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen.

Furthermore, the General doesn’t seem to understand that remarks like this are ultimately toxic to Washington’s efforts to rebuild its credibility among African stakeholders, who are already sceptical that the only reason why Americans are interested in Africa in the first place is because of China (they haven’t forgotten the Bolton speech). His comments also bolster suspicions on the continent that security, not economics or trade are the real drivers of US foreign policy towards Africa.

The US is the only major country, certainly among the G7 states, where the military is allowed to frame their government’s international relations. A British, French, or Japanese general would never be permitted to speak to the international press like this, especially on such sensitive matters like China, which will complicate the broader foreign policy agenda.

The White House would be well-advised to assert its civilian authority over the military and order its generals to avoid making future ill-informed pronouncements that undermine US foreign policy.

The State Department and the Pentagon have got to do better on this issue of the Chinese in Africa and the Global South otherwise they’re just going to fall further and further behind.

This article was first published in The China Africa Project. 

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