The head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spoke on Tuesday of China’s growing influence in the region, specifically citing his concerns with Beijing’s aggressive economic push across the continent and moves to corner the rare Earth mineral market.

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend told lawmakers he sees China aiming to expand its basing opportunities in Africa and cited a need for bolstered intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the theater as a result of increasing activity from “global power competitors.”

U.S. Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, meets with troops assigned to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Nov. 3, 2019, on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Townsend visited to engage with key partners on the long-term stability in East Africa, oversee the multinational maritime exercise Cutlass Express and recognize U.S. service members in the region. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Codie Trimble)

“Today, we can no longer afford to underestimate the economic opportunity and strategic consequence Africa embodies, in which competitors like China and Russia recognize,” Townsend said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “Though [Russia] may be a threat today, I think they’re less of a threat tomorrow. China, however, is of great concern. They are literally everywhere on the continent. They’re placing a lot of bets down. They’re spending a lot of money. We know they use ‘debt trap’ diplomacy and coercion with corrupt politicians. They build a lot of critical infrastructure. Most of their competition is through economic means.”

Townsend said he has seen China described as thinking about Africa like its “second continent” or its “fourth and fifth island chain,” with Beijing looking to opportunities for new arms sales and training exercises with African nations.

“I would say that they have offered training and arms sales frequently, which winds up working out okay for us because the quality of their equipment they sell is frequently inferior and the Africans wind up being disappointed with both the equipment they get from China and the training they get from China,” Townsend said. 

China’s first overseas military base, which is located in Djibouti, will be able to support its aircraft carriers in the near future, according to Townsend, noting that the country is looking for additional basing opportunities across the continent. 

Townsend said AFRICOM will require greater ISR capabilities into the future to be able to meet growing requirements posed by peer competitors. 

“The simple fact of the matter is we do not have enough to do what we assess we need to do in Africa,” Townsend said. 

Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, also testified Tuesday reiterating a similar outlook and said he sees China’s focus in the Middle East currently focused on long-term economic investment, to include arms sales. 

“China, as in Africa, is playing a much deeper and longer game and it is principally an economic effort, although we believe they do aspire at some point to have basing in the theater but that’s still ahead of them,” McKenzie said. 

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) asked Townsend about China’s push to secure access to rare Earth minerals in Africa, noting its a key area as Congress aims to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers for such materials.

“I think from a committee standpoint, there is a pretty widespread recognition now that China has been very methodical and successful in terms of cornering the market for critical minerals,” Courtney said. “We’ve got to pay attention to this because they’ve got a stranglehold, let’s face it, in terms of things like cobalt and lithium, all of these minerals that go into everything from our cellphones to platforms that we need for our national defense.”

Townsend noted that Russia is looking at exploiting short-term gains in the rare Earth mineral space while China is taking a more long-term view, which he called concerning.

“[China] is not only mining rare Earth minerals in Africa for their own use, they are cornering the market on these concerns in Africa to have them under control for a rainy day in the future. That should be of concern to us,” Townsend said. 

The Trump administration declared a national emergency for critical minerals last October, calling for a report on actions to address the fragile supply chain (Defense Daily, Oct. 1).