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.

So far, he said it’s uncertain how those military agreements will impact U.S. operations, but emphasized strong relationships could safeguard against rising influence from adversaries.

“I think yet to be seen how it will play out with the Russian agreements, and how that will affect us,” Gayler said. “And I would say probably our best method to counter that is really our approach that we always take with our African partners.”

“We are simply are building partner capacity,” Gayler said. “That makes us the partner of choice on the African continent. And I think that has a solid foundation for building relationships. They always seek the U.S. partnership with institution-building and training.”

China’s footprint in Africa also has spread.

For example, Hadfield noted China now has 52 embassies in Africa — a 24 percent increase from 2012. China also opened a military base in Djibouti in 2017.

According to AFRICOM’s assessments, China is likely eyeing more economic opportunities in Africa too since Beijing has demonstrated their ability to invest in infrastructure and mining ventures, Hadfield said.

The U.S. has approximately 6,000 Department of Defense personnel in Africa, according to AFRICOM. But that could change soon, thanks to a review the Pentagon is conducting evaluating U.S. troop presence around the globe.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley told Agence France-Presse on Monday that the U.S. was considering various plans that would redistribute troops in Africa either to the continental U.S. to enhance readiness, or move them to the Pacific region as the U.S. aims to counter aggression from Russia and China.

Gayler said no decisions have been made on the matter, although the Pentagon will ultimately have final say on any movements. He also stressed it was likely allies would share their input on the matter, comments that come after French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday it would be “bad news for us” if the U.S. pulled back troops from Africa.

“Though predecisional, I’m very confident that any decision that’ll be made would certainly be in consultation and coordination with our European allies and others, to include the broader U.S. government as well,” Gayler said.

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