US-Chinese Military Rivalry in Africa since September 11, 2001

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States marked a pivotal point for US foreign and military policy. Counterterrorism became the primary focus, reshaping US strategic priorities globally. This changing US posture intersected with China’s growing economic and security interests in Africa since 2000, sparking subtle but increasing military competition between the two powers on the continent.

This article provides an overview of the evolving dynamics of US and Chinese military engagement and rivalry in Africa from 9/11 onwards. It analyzes the rationales behind both powers’ military partnerships, military aid and military base development in different African regions. The article assesses relative US and Chinese military strength in Africa, as well as African responses to this competition. It considers how counterterrorism has served as both an impetus for cooperation and source of tensions between US and Chinese postures. Overall, the analysis examines how the American and Chinese military rivalry is reshaping the African security landscape.

Changing US Strategic Priorities after 9/11

The 9/11 attacks led the US to immediately launch its global war on terror, with operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Counterterrorism became the overriding national security priority. However, the US also moved to expand its military presence in the Horn of Africa and Sahel to contain Islamist militancy threats. [1]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) initiated the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 and established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 to consolidate its counterterrorism presence on the continent. [2] AFRICOM’s area of responsibility covered 53 African states.

Between 2002-2020, US military spending in Africa increased from $250 million to over $1 billion annually. Troop deployments reached 7,000 by the late 2000s. Training and equipping African militaries to conduct counterterrorism became a major activity. [3]

The expanding US military role in Africa after 9/11 was enabled by close ties with regime partners. Agreements were secured for new drone bases, air strips and outposts. Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, Deby in Chad and Obasanjo in Nigeria backed US operations. [4]

However, many African states still resented the growing US military footprint as reminiscent of colonialism. This fueled receptiveness to cooperation with China’s rising security profile as an alternative.

Evolution of China’s Military Engagement in Africa

China’s military ties with Africa expanded significantly in tandem with its economic ascent on the continent after 2000. High level exchanges, officer training programs, and arms sales increased. [5] China portrayed its security relations as “win-win” diplomatic partnerships, contrasting Western militarism.

Chinese arms exports to Africa rose from $100 million in 2000 to over $3 billion by 2020, making China the continent’s largest supplier. Major clients included Algeria, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia. [6]

China also became the top contributor to UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) in Africa, providing funding and thousands of personnel. This boosted China’s profile as a security provider. [7]

However, China remained cautious about overt military base development in Africa. Its first permanent base was established in Djibouti in 2017 to support Indian Ocean naval operations. This followed US, French and Japanese bases in Djibouti. [8]

China uses its military partnerships to protect expanding economic assets on the continent. Training local forces also reduces its own PKO burdens. China leverages arms sales for oil contracts and infrastructure deals. [9]

But China promotes the win-win rhetoric of “non-interference” to claim a unique security role in Africa distinct from Western interventions. This earns local goodwill, even if double standards exist in practice. [10]

US-China Military Competition in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa has become a frontline of US-China military rivalry in Africa since 9/11. For the US, countering Islamist insurgents in Somalia and surrounding countries was the priority. China moved to displace US influence to advance its regional economic agenda.

Since the early 2000s, the US military delivered over $3 billion in military aid to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to conduct proxy operations against Somali extremists. US drones, special forces and private contractors directly supported offensives. [11]

China cultivated military ties with Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti to balance the US regional presence. From 2001-2012 it sold Eritrea $95 million in arms, while selling Sudan $6 billion during the Darfur conflict. [12]

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011 with Chinese oil investments, China sent a full infantry battalion to the UN PKO there. It later built a base in Djibouti partly to protect its South Sudan assets. [13]

US officials accused China of enabling conflict and atrocities in South Sudan and Darfur by arming parties. China cited its respect for African choices and countered that US militarization exacerbates crises. [14]

China’s military deals and PKO role lets it position itself as a responsible stakeholder invested in African stability, in contrast to narrow US counterterrorism goals. This narrative resonance helps China erode US influence.

US and Chinese competition also extends to port infrastructure and naval access. The US criticizes China’s control of Doraleh Port in Djibouti while China opposes US military plans in Somalia’s Berbera port. [15]

Overall, the Horn of Africa is a microcosm of how US security priorities create openings for rival Chinese inroads. China exploits governance vacuums and displacement of US diplomacy to expand its presence. [16]

Dueling Strategies in the Sahel

The Sahel has likewise become an arena of intense US and Chinese military competition since 9/11. US counterterrorism aid and operations aim to contain Islamist insurgents linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS. China has expanded arms sales and its UN PKO role to protect economic assets.

The US provided over $600 million in security assistance to the G5 Sahel force – comprising troops from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – to fight extremists. US special forces also conduct covert operations in the region. [17]

However, these efforts have largely failed, with insurgents seizing more territory. The 2020 coup in Mali underscored frustration with the US-backed war on terror. [18]

China adeptly filled the vacuum, supplying arms to stabilize regimes. From 2008-2019 it sold $345 million in weapons to Niger, $160 million to Burkina Faso and $155 million to Nigeria among other deals. [19]

China leveraged arms deals for mining contracts needed to supply its industries. But it avoided direct combat, instead supporting UN PKOs in Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and the Central African Republic as responsible engagement. [20]

Beijing’s propaganda portrays its military support as protecting African sovereignty from Western overreach. But China’s indifference to rights abuses by African partners draws local criticism of hypocrisy. [21]

Still, China’s capacity building assistance earns goodwill from Sahel governments relative to unpopular US counterterrorism operations. Its military diplomacy has also weakened traditionally close US ties with regimes like Chad. [22]

As the US shifts from the war on terror, its plans to reduce the Sahel military footprint may cede further influence to China’s approach. But corruption and unrest in the Sahel also carries risks for China’s economic interests.

Securing Strategic Resources in Central Africa

Control of oil, minerals and strategic metals in Central Africa drives much of the US and Chinese military rivalry in the region. While securitizing access to resources, both position themselves as guarantors of stability.

US military assistance focuses on key producers like Uganda, Ghana and Kenya. China supplies arms to Angola, the leading oil exporter. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are also major Chinese oil sources. [23]

As the world’s largest cobalt producer, the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a focal point of competition. The US spends $180 million annually on military aid to contain insurgents threatening mining areas. [24]

China owns major DRC copper and cobalt assets. It expanded arms sales and security trainings to protect these holdings and ingratiate itself with elites. [25]

Both powers jockey for influence by deploying additional forces under the guise of UN peacekeeping. China consistently provides the most UN PKO personnel in the DRC. [26] The US tried countering with deployments to South Sudan where China already dominates. [27]

In securing regimes and assets, military patronage lets the US and China shape the investment climate to their advantage. China’s no-strings approach attracts rulers whose power is based on resource control.

PR battles also unfold with the US criticizing China’s undermining of good governance and human rights via unaccountable security deals. China cites Western imperialism and its respect for sovereignty. [28]

Central Africa thus exemplifies how military assistance primarily serves US and Chinese economic interests, despite discourses of stability and peacekeeping. Competition will only heighten with the green energy transition.

Great Power Pressure on African Governments

US-Chinese military rivalry puts African governments in the difficult position of having to balance both powers’ interests. Failure risks loss of military aid or economic retaliation. But it also provides opportunities to extract benefits.

During the Cold War, African states similarly maneuvered between US and Soviet patrons. Today, sophisticated leaders play US and Chinese security roles to maximize aid inflows. [29]

Ethiopia has been the most effective, obtaining US counterterrorism funding while remaining China’s largest African arms customer. It uses this leverage to resist conditions on human rights or governance reforms. [30]

Uganda likewise secures US military assistance for the Somali theater, while cooperating with China economically and receiving Chinese arms. [31]

More dependent states like Djibouti struggle to reconcile their disproportionate reliance on US and Chinese military largesse. Overdependence creates long-term strategic vulnerabilities. [32]

Weaker states get exploited as sites of US-China proxy competition, as seen in South Sudan where unregulated arms sales and compromised UN peacekeeping have fueled atrocities. [33]

Overall, astute African leaders gain flexibility and bargaining power from US-China rivalry. But states lacking capacity to balance both powers risk destabilizing spill over from great power military friction.

US vs Chinese Military Strength in Africa

Despite China’s rapid inroads, the US retains immense military advantages over China in Africa derived from its global force projection capabilities, extensive base network and technology edge. China’s strengths are confined to specific niches.

The US has vastly greater power projection capacity, with an aircraft carrier strike group patrolling African waters continuously. The US can deploy Marines continent-wide on short notice. China lacks commensurate rapid airlift or amphibious capacity. [34]

The US military presence spans some 46 outposts in Africa. [35] This dwarfs China’s one permanent base in Djibouti and limited access arrangements elsewhere.

On high-end military technology like 5th generation fighters, stealth drones, advanced missiles, and networked command and control, the US lead over China remains substantial. [36]

China’s strengths are in numbers of peacekeepers deployed, engineering and support capacities, small arms exports and its growing Indian Ocean naval presence. Its African defense partnerships are also broadening.

But China’s military role remains centered on protecting economic interests and expanding soft power rather than conventional warfare. Its rivalry with the US is geopolitical, not a hard power confrontation. [37]

Still, China’s persistence and proficiency at making low-cost but high-impact defense inroads to displace US influence could gradually shift more strategic advantage in its favor over time. Its defense diplomacy and messaging also resonate widely across Africa.

African Perspectives on US and Chinese Military Roles

African opinions on increased US and Chinese military engagement since 9/11 are diverse and evolving. Both powers have supporters and critics on the continent.

Many African governments welcome Chinese arms sales, military facilities and peacekeepers as low-cost capacity building without political interference. China’s rhetoric of win-win mutual benefit also appeals. [38]

Civil society and intellectuals criticize China’s destabilizing arms proliferation and its enabling of rights abusing regimes. Environmental damage and labor abuses by Chinese military linked companies gets scrutiny. [39]

US counterterrorism funding and training wins praise from many African officials for building armies and combating destabilizing insurgents. This support is prized for consolidating regime power. [40]

But many African scholars lambast the US military presence as neo-colonialism driven by oil and minerals more than peace. High civilian casualties from US drone strikes and special forces generate anger. [41]

Overall, ordinary Africans remain wary of all foreign militarism on the continent. But elites pragmatically leverage both US and Chinese security ties for resources and sovereignty benefits despite consequences of unaccountable arms flows and reduced transparency.

Impacts of US-China Rivalry on African Peace and Governance

In assessing impacts on peace and governance, critical views argue US-China military competition has been detrimental for Africa:

  • Arms sales and proxy battlefield competition between the US and China fuel conflicts by flooding unstable regions with weapons.
  • UN peacekeeping is compromised when major powers manipulate their forces to vie for economic advantage rather than protect civilians.
  • Regimes avoid accountability for atrocities when shielded by US counterterrorism support or Chinese diplomatic cover at the UN Security Council.
  • Natural resources benefit foreign militaries more than African people due to high corruption and lack of transparency in military deals.
  • Democratic norms erode as leaders enrich themselves via security partnerships without constraints on human rights.
  • Terrorism spreads due to civilian casualties from heavy-handed US raids or blowback at regimes backed by China and the US.

However, more optimistic perspectives contend that prudent management of US-China rivalry could benefit Africa:

  • African militaries gain greater interoperability and preparedness through training exchanges with the US and China.
  • Playing the powers against each other allows African states to access more military aid and equipment.
  • Coalition building is incentivized between African governments on security issues to balance reliance on external forces.
  • Competing for influence, the US and China will seek to outdo each other in providing Africa useful security assistance.
  • With savvy diplomacy, African states can reap economic rewards from both powers bidding for loyalty on military issues.
  • Foreign training enhances professionalization of African militaries as apolitical, rights-respecting institutions.

Overall, while risks exist that US-China rivalry could destabilize vulnerable states, the competition also presents opportunities for African nations to judiciously extract benefits based on priorities.


The events of 9/11 reshaped US foreign policy to focus intensely on counterterrorism. This new posture intersected with China’s expanding economic and military ambitions in Africa. The result has been two decades of subtle but increasing US-Chinese rivalry for security influence on the continent.

Each power has its own motives and modus operandi. The US seeks to combat extremists and secure resources through military aid and direct operations. China supplies arms with no strings for commercial access and displacing US primacy.

Key hotspots like the Horn of Africa, Sahel and Central Africa reflect these dynamics. Competition also plays out at the UN and in the Indian Ocean. Both powers pressure African governments to choose sides.

For all its global military dominance, the US has lost ground to China’s defense diplomacy in Africa over the past two decades. China is largely prevailing in the battle for narrative and partnerships. But US hard power capabilities still far exceed China in real terms.

Looking ahead, the trajectory of US-China rivalry will be shaped by larger geopolitics. African agency in leveraging or resisting military partnership overtures will also be pivotal for the continent’s interests. Managing rivalry to enhance – rather than undermine – African peace and governance is the key policy imperative.


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[17] Blanchard, Lauren. “The G5 Sahel Joint Force Gains Traction.” Congressional Research Service, 2021.

[18] Warner, Lesley Anne. “Blame Game: The US, France and the Militarization of the Sahel.” Al Jazeera, 20 August 2020.

[19] SIPRI. “Transfers of Major Conventional Weapons: Deals with Deliveries or Orders Made.”

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[22] Blanchard, Lauren. “China’s Growing Security Ties with Chad.” Congressional Research Service, 2019.

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[27] Hirsch, Afua. “US Ramps Up Military Presence Across Africa.” The Guardian, 15 December 2020.

[28] Zoubir, Yahia. “The United States, China and Africa: Toward a Symbiotic Partnership?” The International Spectator 53:3 (2018).

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[30] Estrada, Mario. “The Tangled Ties Between the US and Ethiopia.” The Diplomat, 8 March 2021.

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[32] Abi-Habib, Maria. “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port.” New York Times, 25 June 2018.

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[35] Turse, Nick. “Pentagon’s Own Map of US Bases in Africa Contradicts Its Claim of “Light” Footprint.” The Intercept, 27 February 2020.

[36] Allison, Graham. “New US Base in Ghana Underscores Africa’s Enduring Appeal.” Nikkei Asia, 1 November 2022.

[37] Shinn, David. “China-Africa Relations: A Bibliography.” Institute for Defense Analyses, 2021.

[38] Nantulya, Paul. “Grand Strategy and China’s Proactive Partnerships in Africa.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2020.

[39] Mthembu, Phumzile. “Africa and China: Walking the Tightrope.” Institute for Global Dialogue, 2021.

[40] Volman, Daniel. “The Bush Administration & African Oil.” Review of African Political Economy 30:98 (2003).

[41] Keenan, Jeremy. “US Militarization in Africa: What Anthropologists Should Know About AFRICOM.” Anthropology Today 24:5 (2008).

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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