The US military’s Africa Command, known as Africom, raised concerns during a recent meeting about President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend payments to the World Health Organization (WHO), according to documents obtained exclusively by The Nation. On April 23, the officials “highlighted some of the negative impacts related to the POTUS halt on WHO funding,” according to minutes marked “for official use only.”
Some two dozen individuals attended the meeting via Skype, according to the readout, which reveals that Africom appears to fear that if the United States stops contributing to the WHO during the Covid-19 pandemic, China will use that as an opportunity to expand its influence in Africa.
On May 19, Trump threatened to make permanent the suspension of payments to the WHO and said he would “reconsider” the country’s membership in the UN agency. In the 2018–19 budget, US funding accounted for 15 percent of the WHO’s budget—more than any other country’s contribution.
The following day, Chinese President Xi Jinping made diplomatic relations with Africa the focus of his opening address at the World Health Assembly. His speech emphasized Beijing’s longstanding relations with Africa, saying that China provided health aid to 200 million Africans over the past 70 years. And while Trump threatens to exit the WHO, Xi pledged to give the agency $2 billion to over the next 20 years. For comparison, the United States gave $107 million to $119 million in assessed contributions annually—as well as voluntary contributions ranging from $102 million to $401 million per year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Under a section titled “COVID-19 Update,” the report says that officials “briefed the GPC [great power competition] impacts of China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ efforts and some signs of pushback from African countries, providing an opportunity for greater U.S. influence. But, highlighted some of the negative impacts related to the POTUS halt on WHO funding.”
The document also highlights “concern” about the fact that the only major US military base in the region, Camp Lemonnier, is in Djibouti, which it notes “has by far the highest incidence rate per population on the continent.”
In April, The Nation reported on a leaked Defense Department intelligence brief detailing fears about the dangers Covid-19 outbreaks in foreign countries could pose to US military personnel.
Asked about the nature of the meeting, a Defense Department spokesperson declined to comment.
The report refers to China’s “mask diplomacy efforts,” which include donating more than 1 million test kits and 600,000 facial masks to various African countries. Despite these contributions, the response within Africa is not one of unmitigated approval. This month, Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to “end the discriminatory treatment of Africans related to the Covid-19 pandemic.” The rights group criticized Chinese authorities in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, for targeting African residents with forced testing and quarantine. Landlords also evicted Africans, forcing many to sleep on the streets. Authorities did not generally treat other foreigners in this manner, according to HRW.
The Pentagon is acutely aware of China’s diplomatic overtures. The document cites a briefing on “GPC impacts.” Great power competition is conflict among superpowers for geopolitical dominance. As The Atlantic reported last year, GPC has become a popular way for the DC foreign policy establishment to frame almost any international issue—so much so that it is “approaching a cliché.”
In 2019, Gen. Kenneth McKensie, the commander of US Central Command, identified GPC as the main focus of the National Defense Strategy, a planning document produced once every four years by the secretary of defense and signed by the president.
The fourth reason is the reemergence of the great power competition, the main challenge highlighted in the NDS [National Defense Strategy]. China and Russia seek to dominate and influence not just their own geographic regions, but the Central Region as well. Just as great power competitors looked to influence energy and trade in the Middle East following the first World War, China and Russia are working very hard today to reshuffle the balance of power in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, trying to displace the U.S. from our current position of influence in the region.
In March of this year, McKensie gave a posture statement before the House Armed Services Committee, saying that “the nation’s top defense priority must relentlessly focus on adversarial great powers that possess the power and means to destroy our country.”
McKensie’s bellicose tone reflects the goal implicit in great power competition: to confront military superpowers like China and Russia. One consequence of this is diverting resources from countering nonstate actors like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Stephen Townsend, a four-star general who is now the commander of Africom, said that attention had turned from extremist groups to superpowers. “As a result of the National Defense Strategy’s shift in focus to great power competition, the priority for resourcing USAfricom’s Counter Violent Extremists Organizations efforts has decreased.”
Phillip Lohaus, a former Defense Department analyst who now works as a research fellow with the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, echoed similar concerns, writing in USA Today, “In framing the way forward as a competition between ‘great powers,’ the United States risks overlooking where the front lines of international competition with these actors now lay. It risks doubling down on old notions of direct military confrontation rather than mitigating the weaknesses that its adversaries have long exploited.”
As ominous as the notion of a renewed Cold War between nuclear superpowers is, Trump’s decision to cut funding to the WHO will have serious humanitarian consequences as well, particularly in Africa. Since January, the WHO has helped the African Union establish coronavirus testing labs and provided countries most affected by Covid-19 with additional medical supplies. The WHO works closely with the African Union and the US Centers for Disease Control to respond to health crises.
Despite these dangers, the Pentagon’s central concern appears to be over GPC. “There is also an effort at continuing to develop the GPC capabilities being worked at a higher classification level,” the readout states. Another section titled “[Future Operations] Update” reads, “Expect to get some [request for service] from AFRICOM for some Special Activities capabilities.”
While Trump may not be aware of his cuts’ effect on the United States’ global influence, the military certainly is.
You can read the Africom meeting readout below.