The United States does not consider China's arms sales to Africa as a "military competition" between Beijing and Washington, the head of the US command on the continent said Wednesday.
General Carter Ham also said it was "uncertain" whether China had made weapons sales to the regime of strongman Moamer Kadhafi at the height of Libya's war, and that he was unaware of any possible sales of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles from China to other countries in Africa.
Ham, who heads US African command AFRICOM, has stressed that the proliferation in Africa of man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, was a top concern as they could fall into the hands of extremist groups such as the Islamic Shebab or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
"I do know that the Chinese, and I think other nations, have been asked by a number of organizations" about what they may have sold to Libya, "so that we can have a more accurate baseline, and then go from there."
Earlier this month Libya's new government said it was investigating documents that appeared to detail secret Chinese efforts to sell about $200 million (141 million euros) in weapons to Kadhafi's regime in late July despite UN sanctions.
While the sales to Libya were unclear, Ham said it was "very clear" that the Chinese were supplying weaponry and other military equipment to African nations.
"As commander of US Africom, I don't see that as a military competition, if you will, between us and China," Ham said.
"A number of African nations fly Chinese aircraft, have Chinese maritime patrol vessels and the like," he said, pointing as an example to the Democratic Republic of Congo's acquisition of riverine craft for its security forces.
"I think that's actually pretty helpful," Ham said. "It's a capability that they need, it's not a capability that we possess."
"Would I prefer for them to have all US stuff? Absolutely," he added.
"But the Africans will make decisions that's best for them."
As China's economy booms it seeks new sources of raw materials and energy to sustain its breakneck growth. Its investments in and trade with Africa have surged, and arms sales -- sometimes to regimes that Washington deems unsavory -- are part of the puzzle.
According to US thinktank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese arms sales to Africa from 2003 to 2006 topped $500 million, some 15 percent of all conventional arms sales to the continent.
It said recipients of the weapons included Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
China also has billions of dollars worth of investments in Libya, where for years it helped prop up the regime. On Tuesday Beijing said Libya's National Transitional Council has agreed to uphold deals with China made before Kadhafi's ouster.