Training Armed Forces in Africa: No such thing as a New Cold War

di Ilaria Carrozza

When Rwandan troops marched to celebrate the country’s 25th anniversary of the liberation from the genocide last year, the commanding officer and his 22 squads shouted military salutes in Mandarin Chinese. Nearly 2,000 Rwandan soldiers and police officers were trained by Chinese instructors and were then parading at a packed national stadium.

This detail called attention to China’s growing military engagement in Africa, which includes arms sales, participation in United Nations peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations, and military training. These activities are the subject of much debate within many policy and academic circles, especially in light of the current confrontation between the US and China, which has been called a “New Cold War”. In this context, critics have pointed to China’s expanded involvement in African states’ military activities and claimed that Chinese provision of security force assistance (SFA) is an element of its strategy to gain global influence. 

SFA consists in donating arms, military training and advice to allied militaries, and it is worth billions of dollars each year. It is a tool to boost the capacity and quality of the recipient state’s coercive institutions; in addition to addressing perceived direct threats such as terrorism, organised crime and uncontrolled migration, SFA is also presented as a measure to mitigate state fragility. SFA providers often expect it to also improve relationships with the armed forces of recipient states.

SFA was a key component of strategic competition in Africa during the Cold War, when it was used by recipient states to build up their armed forces and by providers to gain influence in the ideological battle between the Western and the Soviet blocs. In order to assess whether SFA provision to Africa today followed a similar pattern, my colleague Nicholas Marsh and I collected all available information on Chinese SFA and compared it with data on US SFA provision. This research is part of a project called “The Impact of Security Force Assistance on State Fragility (SFAssist)”, based at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and led by Øystein H. Rolandsen. 

We identified 29 recipients of Chinese SFA in Africa, including two organizations—the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—and 27 countries, among which are Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In general, we found that while it is difficult to gather reliable information on Chinese funding, Chinese SFA is not dramatically more or less than what was pledged in 2015, when President Xi Jinping promised USD 100 million in military assistance to the African Union over a period of five years. We further observed that many of the countries receiving SFA are also recipients of Belt and Road investments, such as Tanzania and Ghana. This makes sense as Chinese companies investing abroad increasingly find themselves embroiled in conflict-prone areas; ensuring a stable and peaceful environment is therefore a priority for China to safeguard both its interests and citizens. The type of equipment and infrastructure provided also tells an interesting story: China has so far focused on non-lethal equipment and infrastructure such as barracks, rather than weapons (excluding arms sales, which are of a commercial nature); this may signal that China has mainly sought to use SFA provision as a way to build long term relationships with recipient states. Finally, it is important to point out that all countries receiving Chinese SFA are receiving SFA from the US, and many also from the UK, France and the EU. China is therefore not substituting existing providers, but rather adding to an already very crowded field of donors.

What can be concluded from our observations is that, when looking at the provision of SFA to African states, painting it as a renewed Cold War is not only historically inaccurate but also misleading. Specifically, Chinese provision of SFA in Africa is much smaller than that provided by the US. There is therefore no such thing as a New Cold War in Africa for the time being. This is not to say that the confrontation between China and the US is insignificant or that it will not affect the continent. Indeed, the current strategic rivalry between China and the US poses a dilemma for countries that may have to pick a side, either on specific issues or on broader foreign policy. While African countries have so far managed to stay out of this confrontation, this may change, especially as external pressure for diplomatic support increases. We should not expect China’s engagement in African security to decrease any time soon, but it would be a mistake to think that China will substitute existing providers altogether. Therefore, rather than a New Cold War between blocs supporting two super-powers, Africa will likely witness competition within individual states and among a growing number of regional as well as external players.

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