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Analysis: China’s Military Influence in Africa Grows as Russia’s Diminishes

China’s People’s Liberation Army marked the 96th anniversary of its founding this week with President Xi Jinping overseeing celebrations in China, but the anniversary was also commemorated in many African countries where Beijing has influence and is keen on expanding military cooperation.

Among them was Zimbabwe, where ties with the PLA date back to the 1960s and China’s support for the guerilla movement — now the ruling party — that fought for the country’s independence from white minority rule.

“The precious memories of the solidarity and synergy between our two armies are our shared legacy which continues to shape and inject momentum to our relations nowadays,” China Ambassador to Zimbabwe Zhou Ding said at a reception attended by Zimbabwe’s acting minister of defense and army officials from both nations.

Zhou noted that just the previous week, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa had commended a group of young Zimbabwean pilots who trained for four years in China, reflecting “the fraternal relations between our two countries and our two militaries,” Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspaper, the Herald, reported. Mnangagwa himself trained at the PLA Army Command College in Nanjing.

Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told VOA the PLA anniversary celebrations are not only happening in Zimbabwe.

“You’re going to see the same thing in South Africa, Kenya and all these embassies where you have a military attaché. … With the case of Zimbabwe, I think what China wants to put across is the special relationship that it has with Zanu-PF first and foremost,” he said, referring to the ruling party.

For his part, Zimbabwe’s acting defense minister, Daniel Garwe, vowed to continue to cement ties with China “today and in the future as we are both faced with geopolitical threats,” the Herald reported. Zimbabwe, where the same party has been in power for over 40 years, is under Western sanctions for corruption and human rights abuses.

In neighboring South Africa, also governed by a former liberation movement that benefitted from Chinese support, a local newspaper ran a lengthy op-ed by Major General Shang Hong, Chinese defense attaché to the country.

“As an important part of our overall bilateral relationship, the PLA-SANDF (South African National Defense Forces) friendship, guided by our two presidents, has been embracing pragmatic cooperation in various fields with tangible results, including high-level exchanges, mechanism building, joint training and exercise, military academies, medicine and health, international peacekeeping, etc.,” he wrote.

He noted that South Africa had hosted China, along with Russia, for joint naval exercises earlier in the year and that the head of South Africa’s army had recently visited China, “thus laying a solid foundation for enhancing strategic mutual trust and deepening pragmatic cooperation.”

Events to mark the PLA anniversary were also held in South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Nantulya said the PLA uses these occasions to emphasis how it contributes to Africa, whether through participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions or military education.

A recent paper by Nantulya details how China “treats the education and training of foreign military personnel as an opportunity to promote China’s governance model to develop closer relationships with foreign militaries and governments and to build a shared understanding of security.”

“Many alumni of these programs go on to play leading roles in their countries’ militaries and governments,” he wrote, noting that thousands of African officers attend such trainings each year.

Russian competition 

Many analysts contend that in an increasingly polarized world, the African continent — which is resource rich, has a growing population and is strategically located — is a stage where major powers are vying for influence, not only China and the United States but increasingly Russia. 

Russia — which also has ties to many former liberation movements — has long been by far the biggest arms supplier to Africa.

“However, China is ahead on every other metric, when you look at military professionalism, when you look at military training and capacity building, when you look at support to the African Union,” said Nantulya.

Analysts think the war in Ukraine and related Western sanctions could benefit China in terms of catching up to Russia in weapons sales too.

“Russia’s ability to supply military equipment, for instance, is hampered both by its expulsion from international cross-border payment networks like SWIFT and by it having to consume most new arms production for its own needs,” Darren Olivier, director of conflict research consultancy African Defense Review, told VOA.

“China is well placed to take over much of Russia’s market share in that regard. It has increasingly been a supplier of weapons to African armed forces over the years, with deliveries ranging from basic infantry weapons to increasingly sophisticated transport aircraft, helicopters, UAVs and air defense systems,” he said.

Asked whether sanctions on Russia had seen an increase in Chinese arms sales to Africa, the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

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