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Discerning China’s Intentions a Challenge for U.S., AFRICOM

FullTextImage/img/@altMaj. Gen. Donald Christopher Leins gives a keynote address -- Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 4, 2011 – One of the challenges facing U.S. policymakers regarding Africa is that “we don’t really know what Chinese intentions are, what their goals are, and what they hope to achieve,” said Maj. Gen. Donald Christopher Leins, deputy director for politico-military affairs (Africa) at the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Leins delivered a keynote address at VMI’s “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa” conference on Nov. 3, speaking of challenges as well as opportunities for the United States over the next few decades as it tries to map out a strategy to promote development and secure its interests in Africa.

During a time of budget constraints and shrinking resources, Leins said, it is critical for the U.S. to cultivate partnerships in Africa.

“Should China be one of those partners?” Leins asked, referencing a “lack of transparency,” among other issues, that makes it difficult for the United States to discern whether Chinese motivations are “altruistic or neo-colonial.”

In the past, for example, China had been critical of many peace-keeping missions as constituting a violation of sovereignty. However, in recent years China has itself become involved in more operations, Leins said, citing humanitarian efforts in Darfur and Sudan undertaken by China, in addition to Chinese efforts to stem piracy off the Somali coast.

Leins also spoke of the challenges and activities of the newly formed Africa Command, AFRICOM, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM, which is one of six Department of Defense regional military headquarters, assists African militaries in developing security strategies for defense and anti-terrorism.

Leins said the ongoing economic recession has forced the Africa Command to focus on hotspots such as Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia, and Nigeria. AFRICOM personnel stationed in Africa contend with poisonous snakes, malaria, and other infectious diseases, as well as the logistics of operating on a continent three times the size of the United States, Leins said.

In addition to the challenges facing the U.S. and China in Africa, Leins also spoke of opportunities. The success of U.S. and Chinese operations to stem piracy in Somalia is but one area of common interest that could give way to future cooperation on “transnational” concerns such as illegal drug trafficking, natural disaster response, pandemics, and elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

All of which over the next two decades might spell opportunity for cadets who are interested in international relations.

“We don’t have a deep bench of experts on Africa, which is something for you all to think about,” Leins said to cadets in the audience. “I challenge all of you to stay engaged and remember that language is important. Twenty to 30 years [from now] you will be the ones leading the way.”

–George Abry