China's controversial investment initiatives in Africa have overshadowed its military presence on the continent. And that aspect of Chinese involvement is sizeable and expanding, according to a US Defence Department think-tank.
Several little-noted deployments of Chinese forces in Africa have followed the adoption of a law in 2015 permitting the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to operate in other countries.
China's national armed police force may also soon start operating in Africa, with Kenya identified by the Pentagon think-tank as the likely setting for this initial involvement.
Beijing has agreed to train Kenyan security personnel to protect the new Mombasa-Nairobi railway built with $4 billion (Sh400 billion) in Chinese financing.
"Because this type of training is normally assigned to elite forces of the People’s Armed Police, it will likely give the force its entrée to the African continent," states a study published recently by the Pentagon's Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
China has already used its financial prowess for military purposes in Tanzania. Beijing funded a $30 million (Sh3 billion) military training centre there that opened a year ago.
China's naval base in Djibouti is the most prominent manifestation of Beijing's new strategy of projecting its military might outside of Asia.
That facility, situated close to an 11-year-old US air-and-sea base in Djibouti, became operational in 2017. Last November, the PLA "conducted live-fire exercises there, employing armoured fighting vehicles and heavy artillery," notes the study.
That demonstration of war-fighting capacity marked "the first time China had conducted exercises on such a scale on foreign soil," says the study authored by Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Washington-based think-tank.
Mr Nantulya earned a degree in international relations from United States International University in Nairobi.
His report notes that Chinese military exercises took place in 2018 in four sub-Saharan countries: Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria.
Another country in West Africa, Burkina Faso, is also working out an arrangement with the PLA focused on counter-terrorism and protection of infrastructure, the study observes. The move follows Burkina Faso's decision last year to sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establish ties with Beijing.
"In neighbouring Mali," Mr Nantulya's report adds, "the PLA deployed its Sixth Battle Group, consisting of regular and Special Forces, to the United Nations-led Peacekeeping Operation in Mali (Minusma) to protect the mission’s Chinese and foreign staff and secure critical infrastructure."
Chinese military links with African countries, while growing stronger and more extensive, have been in place for some years in the form of arms sales.
China now ranks as the number-one supplier of weapons to Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China was the source of more than one-quarter of the arms imported into the region between 2013 and 2017. That amounts to a 55 per cent increase in arms transfers over the previous four-year period, the Pentagon think-tank study points out.
Uganda and South Sudan are among the 22 African nations that have imported weapons from China this decade.
There is also considerable opposition in many African countries to China's sizeable presence. Attacks against Chinese nationals and property have occurred in recent years in Uganda, South Sudan and several other sub-Saharan nations.
Private Chinese security contractors have begun operating in African countries where close to 300,000 Chinese civilians are working on developments related to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.
These firms are proliferating in "poorly regulated environments in Africa as [Belt and Road] projects expand more quickly than oversight mechanisms can be adopted," the US Defence Department study states.
"African citizens are increasingly pressuring their leaders to manage their security relationships with China in ways that avoid reinforcing these trends," the study adds. "This tension between African citizens and governments is likely to grow as China … seeks to expand its influence in Africa’s security arena."