WASHINGTON, DC — The top American commander in Africa warned lawmakers on Thursday against the potential expansion of China’s military activities beyond its first overseas base in Djibouti and Russia’s deployment of mercenaries to the Central African Republic (CAR) and ongoing military support for Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar who has been accused of war crimes.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser’s comments echoed U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks in releasing President Donald Trump’s Africa strategy in December 2018.
Bolton cautioned that Russian and Chinese “predatory practices” on the continent — aimed at extracting natural resources and building alliances to the detriment of American influence — “interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, Gen. Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) declared:
Djibouti is the first overseas Chinese base. I have said before I don’t believe it will be the last. They are looking for other areas and so forth to especially ports because what they want to do to a large degree the infrastructure, they build ports, roads, bridges and whatnot is tied to the extraction, mineral extraction, they are conducting in those countries.
Their military growth for the future although unclear they certainly want to protect those investments. They want to protect their populations and the workers that they have there. So some would say that this was just the first step…We have some reports that [we] could probably go into [in a] closed [classified] session that they may look to increase their contributions to some of these groups that are in the counterterrorism effort. So I think that in the future it’s very likely that they could increase their military presence.
Meanwhile, Russia is deploying paramilitary troops into Africa in the form of mercenaries working with the private military company Wagner Group, which is linked to the Kremlin’s military intelligence apparatus, the top American commander warned, telling lawmakers:
What the Russians are doing in the Central African Republic is very concerning because they have the paramilitary group, the Wagner Group, who is heavily involved there, not only in training, but also an influence at the highest levels of government to include the president.
And meanwhile, they been able to work the situation so they can have mineral extraction and so forth, gold, et cetera, to generate revenue as well. And so this model is very concerning in that if you bring in paramilitary group, they influence the government, they extract resources, this is very concerning if that model would be applied in another country.
Russia is reportedly using its support for Libyan strongman Gen. Haftar to ensure its influence in the oil-rich North African nation. Haftar is the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) — accused of war crimes by human rights groups — and the Tobruk-based breakaway government in eastern Libya.
Gen. Waldhauser testified:
Behind the scenes, there’s no doubt about the fact they [Russia] supported the LNA with all kinds of equipment, people, training, and the like. And they’ve supported Hafta. …[Support for Haftar] gives them influence and it gives them influence in a key location in the southern [Mediterranean], on the southern part of NATO, if you will, and it allows them then to reinvigorate some old [dictator Muammar] Gaddafi era contracts in the oilfield, weapon sales, and the like. So there’s a strategic interest for them to be behind both sides [including the United Nations-brokered government], but primarily, really, Haftar.
The move comes despite the growing influence of China and Russia as well as the intensifying threat posed by jihadi groups on the continent.
Gen. Waldhauser argued the reductions will not affect America’s counterterrorism fight in Africa, telling lawmakers, “We’ll continue to provide intelligence, we’ll continue to provide logistic support and, with partners like the French and Western Africa.”
Referring to the proposed reduction of about 700 U.S. counterterrorism troops in Africa that is already underway, Waldhauser said:
At the moment, we don’t see a significant issue there. And whether we’ll ever be directed to execute the second half [of the withdrawal] is to be determined. …If we feel that it’s not in our best interest to do so, we will…push back on the plan that’s in place at the moment.
The general argued that the current U.S. military presence in Africa is “adequate” to deal with the growing threat of strategic competitors China and Russia.
“We need to…have [the current] 6,000 or so conventional forces plus Special Operations Forces on the continent today. We need to maintain that threshold force in order” to address the threats to American interests in Africa posed jihadi groups as well as Russia and China, he said.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, noted that U.S. resources are struggling to keep up with the threat in Africa posed by jihadis and strategic rivals China and Russia.
“We’re trying to have a much more focused capability to, you know, bring resources to bear. We are challenged to keep up,” she told lawmakers.
The U.S. military has accused China of using its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, as a vehicle to push predatory loans in Africa collateralized with natural resources and strategic assets.
Experts have warned that China’s “predatory lending practices” in Africa— used to undermine borrower countries’ sovereignty — allow Beijing to strengthen its military ties to the continent, enhance political leverage, export communist authoritarian ideology, and gain access to viable army positions that can threaten the American homeland.
The U.S. military considers the BRI project a national security threat. Under BRI, Beijing seeks to build an extensive network of infrastructure that would help connect China to the rest of Asia, as well as Africa, Europe, and even Latin America.
Gen. Waldhauser acknowledged that not all Chinese activities in Africa are bad, adding that there is room for cooperation with the United States.
“There are places, certainly on the African continent, where you know, we have to cooperate with the Chinese, but there were times we have to confront and also compete with them,” he said.