Many of China’s military exports to Africa – usually paid for with energy exports – are actually products that help the nations involved and are approved of by the U.S.

“It is very clear that the Chinese are engaged in supporting African militaries with equipment, but I don’t see that as a military competition between us and China,” says U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command. “For example, the Chinese have provided the Democratic Republic of Congo a number of riverine [water] craft for their security forces. I think that’s helpful. A number of African countries [also] fly Chinese aircraft and operate maritime patrol vessels.”

By comparison, Russian companies have sold top-of-the-line SA-24 man-portable air defense missile systems (Manpads) to Libya and SA-18s to Eritrea that were subsequently supplied to Somali rebels and employed to shoot down cargo aircraft. As to Chinese sales of arms to Libya, the evidence is murky.

“It’s uncertain whether China was involved in arms sales to Libya,” Ham said during a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington on Sept. 14. “The Chinese have been asked. I don’t know the response. I don’t know of any specific instances of [the] Chinese introducing Manpads to Africa. I know China and other nations have been asked to report sales to allow establishment of an accurate baseline.”

International rules demand reporting the sale of individual Manpads but ignore the sale of multiple missile launchers.

“There are three categories of weapons we are concerned about proliferating from Libya,” Ham says. “At the top of the list are Manpads [in the] hands of extremist organizations. The State Department has led a regional effort to recognize the risk, [and now] there is a greater degree of [international] collaboration, intelligence-sharing and border security cooperation to stem this flow.”

The second category of concern for AfriCom is the proliferation of conventional munitions and explosives that can be turned into improvised explosive devices, particularly if they are bought by Al Shabaab or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Third on the list are residual components of chemical weapons. Detailing and destruction of these materials was under way, but not completed before the current conflict in Libya began.