China Not a Threat to U.S. National Security Interests in Africa

For Release

April 22, 2015

China's rapidly increasing involvement in Africa has fed fears of renewed geopolitical competition with the United States, but the reality is more complicated and nuanced, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Activities by China in Africa have increased dramatically in the last decade. Of the more than 5 million Chinese living abroad, approximately 1 million live in Africa, up from only a few thousand a decade ago. Sino-Africa trade has increased almost 20-fold since 2000, with China supplanting the United States as Africa's largest trading partner.

“For better and worse, Beijing has less control over the behavior of Chinese actors in Africa than is commonly assumed,” said Lloyd Thrall, author of the study and a project associate at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “We found that China's growing presence in Africa is not a strategic threat to U.S. security interests. In fact, both countries have a primary interest in a stable and secure Africa.”

The RAND study examines how China's rapidly growing engagement with African states affects the role of the U.S. Army on the continent and offers policy recommendations for U.S. and Army leaders.

China's government and commercial actors have three primary economic interests in Africa: a source for natural resource imports; a growing market for exports; and an opportunity for Chinese companies to gain global experience. On the political side, China is interested in bolstering its international influence and supporting the stability of economic partners.

The main source of friction between the United States and China appears to be over the role of foreign powers in supporting good governance and human rights norms in Africa, particularly regarding pariah states, according to the report. Regarding security, China will grapple with growing security concerns as its African presence expands, including protecting its citizens and assets from internal instability, popular backlash, terrorism and kidnapping.

Thrall recommends that the United States keep China's unfavorable activities in Africa in perspective. While commercial competition is almost certain, unlike the Cold War, there is little ground for geopolitical and ideological rivalry.

While leaders of the two nations disagree about political norms, both states primarily seek stability in Africa. Further, African states will continue to be the primary authors of their political destiny, only partially influenced by outside powers. Both the United States and China will continue to seek imports of African natural resources, though the potential for “resource wars” is grossly overstated.

To support U.S. interests and buoy international norms, the United States should focus on reinvigorating its African relationships rather than competing with China in Africa, according to the report.

There are a number of emerging opportunities for the United States to work in cooperation with China in Africa. For example, the evolving security threats the Chinese army will face in Africa are familiar to the U.S. military. If the United States Africa Command continues to seek opportunities for greater engagement with the Chinese, it could undercut containment rhetoric in China, demonstrate the value of reduced tensions and lessen anxiety in African capitals over great-power rivalry.

The study, “China's Expanding African Relations: Implications for U.S. National Security,” can be found at

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Army and conducted within the RAND Arroyo Center's Strategy and Resources Program. RAND Arroyo Center, part of the RAND Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the U.S. Army.

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