(Second of a two-day Stripes series about AFRICOM)

STUTTGART, Germany — Energy-hungry China and the United States, the world’s two greatest oil consumers, are jockeying for influence over Africa’s vast economic potential. But as the two rivals sink their business hooks into the continent, soldiers from the two nations have also rubbed elbows there.

U.S. troops and contractors in Liberia, a nation about the size of Virginia, are training that country’s army, while about 580 Chinese soldiers in Liberia are staffing the ongoing U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Despite the U.S.-China rivalry — and different approaches toward the continent — the new U.S. Africa Command might see fit to eventually work there with China’s military, or anyone else’s, according to Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, the AFRICOM commander.

"There’s work being done by many nations on the continent of Africa," Ward said. "Whether it’s the Chinese, the Indians, other European nations, other Asian nations — clearly to the degree that we can cooperate in reaching common objectives, we want to do that.

"And there’s enough work for all, to be sure."

As U.S. policy makers sort out the palatability of working with China, others ponder the common ground on which their militaries could operate in Africa.

While Stuttgart-based AFRICOM advertises humanitarian motives, critics condemn resource-poor China’s business-only approach toward buying oil from Sudan, minerals from Zimbabwe, and vital resources from other African nations.

"They sell weapons to Sudan that can be used to prolong the conflict in Darfur [and] build new power plants that support Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime in Zimbabwe," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., said June 5 at a hearing entitled "China in Africa: Implications for U.S. Policy." The hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committeee’s Africa Relations Subcommittee.

"We as the international community should not tolerate such reckless behavior as it undermines global efforts to bring peace and security to these countries."

John J. Tkacik Jr., senior research fellow in Asian Studies at the Washington-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said rulers such as Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir have simple aims that China is glad to accommodate.

"They say, ‘If you want money, you go to the Chinese; if you want to help reduce AIDS and malaria, you go to the Americans,’" Tkacik said. "Most African despots prefer the former."

China has defended its role in Sudan, noting that it appointed a special envoy for Darfur and has sent 140 engineers to work there with Africa Union and United Nations peacekeepers.

"Overall, relevant parties in the Darfur issue welcome China becoming more active in solving the problem," said the envoy, Liu Guijin. "They have seen China’s contribution. ... We’ll continue to work with the international community to push for a final solution," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Since 2003, as many as 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million people displaced in ethnic violence. Sudan’s Arab-dominated government, with which China deals, has denied perpetuating the violence.

China also voted last week with the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence perpetrated against opponents of Mugabe, but called for Friday’s run-off election, from which Mugabe’s opponent withdrew, to proceed as scheduled.

"We hope relevant parties in Zimbabwe could put their national and people’s interest first, keep calm and refrained, and continue to solve their disputes peacefully through dialogue," Liu Jianchao, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday.

On Saturday, the United States went a step further.

President Bush called for an international arms embargo against Zimbabwe in the wake of the "sham election." The president also announced that the United States is drafting new economic sanctions that, for the first time, would take aim at Mugabe’s government.

AFRICOM, which is building toward full operation on Oct. 1, is consolidating U.S. military activity on the continent. Previous missions — military-to-military training, humanitarian efforts, peacekeeping support, and occasional combat — were overseen by three separate U.S. military commands.

One example of U.S.-China military cooperation was a recent effort toward rebuilding Liberian military facilities.

"This wasn’t emanating from above," said Stephen J. Morrison, executive director for the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "They (U.S. and China) just happened to be side by side. Both were committed to this process. That was a good precedent."

Security, particularly at oil facilities, has become an issue for China as it develops oil resources on the continent, and could beckon more U.S.-China cooperation.

In April 2007, 74 people were killed in Ogaden, Ethiopia, when rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field. Chinese workers have been kidnapped in Nigeria and elsewhere.

That China often uses of its own workers instead of creating African jobs has rankled some.

Dr. Harvey Sicherman, president of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, doubted the benefit of working alongside the Chinese military.

"What are their capabilities? They (Chinese) can train you how to shoot a little bit. That’s about it," said Sicherman, adding that China is also not known for having a humanitarian bent.

Sicherman speculated that the U.S. and China could address the major issue of piracy along Africa’s coasts.

"There it seems you would need a little coordination so you don’t end up shooting each other," he said.

Ward said the potential of working with China derives from the command’s desire to broadcast its goals, not hide them, and work with like-minded partners.

"Our intent is to be very open and transparent, with European nations, African nations and any other nations, quite frankly," Ward said. "If our foreign policy that says we work with these nations, to be sure, we would be very open [to it].

"If there is to be some sort of liaison relationship, where officers or [noncommissioned officers] of another country could come and be part of the staff, we clearly have a notion to have a structure that would permit that.

"It’s not there just yet," he added. "We’re building."

Day 1 stories

Visits designed to change perceptions among African nations

AFRICOM to rely on local knowledge in lieu of African headquarters

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now