Since the 1950s, the British army’s prestigious Sandhurst has often been the first choice for developing countries to send their best military officers for further training, and in the past 70 years around 5,000 international students from 120 countries have completed courses at the academy southwest of London.
Some Sandhurst graduates went on to command the armed forces of their own nations and to head governments.
But China is stepping up its foreign military training programs and appears to be targeting especially military officers from Commonwealth nations, formerly governed by the United Kingdom, who in record numbers are enrolling in China’s foreign training programs, according to a British research organization.
And several African nations, including Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania, have opened “politico-military schools” sponsored by China, says Civitas, a London-based policy research group.
In a report, titled China’s military education and Commonwealth countries, analysts Radomir Tylecote and Henri Rossano say China’s military training programs “should be understood in the context of Beijing’s growing efforts to train foreign elites generally,” part of a broad effort to gain influence over developing countries.
The authors warn, “China increasingly uses its military training for foreigners as a method of promoting its models of governance; military training typically includes ideological education.” They say during the training China promotes its “Party-Army model,” in which the army is subordinate to a ruling party. Such a system is antithetical to multiparty democratic systems, they note.
Foreign students can attend regional academies, where courses are designed for cadets and junior officers. Most foreign students attend command and staff colleges, including the Army Command College and Command and Staff Colleges of the service branches of the People's Liberation Army, PLA. Top officers undergo training at the National Defense University and National University of Defense Technology. More than 20 Chinese military academies accept foreign cadets and officers.
According to Civitas, China has trained thousands of officers at middle and senior levels from over 100 countries in recent decades, and the numbers are rising, especially when it comes to African nations of Britain’s Commonwealth. Beijing’s China-Africa Action Plan for 2018-2021 earmarked 5,000 training places for African soldiers, against 2,000 in 2015-2018. Sandhurst trains 1,500 foreign officers annually.
Many of the countries participating in the foreign military training programs are also recipients of loans and infrastructure investment funds from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, which has been criticized by the U.S. and the European Union. They argue the BRI is used for economic coercion and that the loans can be leveraged by Beijing for political purposes, known as debt-trap diplomacy.
Beijing denies this.
Nearly all of the Commonwealth nations have signed up for BRI loans. Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the British parliament’s defense committee, told Britain’s The Times newspaper last week, “China has ensnared dozens of countries, now equating to a quarter of the world’s GDP, into long-term economic programs they can ill afford while progressively reshaping the international landscape. It is no surprise to learn China’s increasing influence now extends to military training academies, with Sandhurst and Shrivenham [the U.K. Defense Academy] being replaced by elite military institutes in China.”
The Global Times, a daily tabloid newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, has said the military training programs help to change foreign officers’ preconceived notions about China, fueled by Western media.
But some Western politicians and analysts warn there is evidence that the relationship China is forging with some foreign military elites can have political ramifications and contribute to the shaping of the political systems of some developing countries. They cite Zimbabwe, once a member of the Commonwealth, whose late leader, Robert Mugabe, graduated from China’s International College of Defense Studies. He identified as a Marxist for much of his rule.
Also being cited is Barbados, which removed the British monarch as head of state last month. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, has accused China of playing a hand in Barbados’ ditching of the queen, saying that Beijing has actively sought to undermine Britain’s status as a key partner of Caribbean nations. Barbados has signed up to the BRI and its armed forces have received a $3 million donation from the PLA while some of its officers have attended Chinese military academies.
Other Commonwealth countries receiving Chinese military training include Cameroon, Rwanda, Guyana, Kenya and Uganda, where it is sponsoring the Oliver Tambo Leadership Academy, a politico-military school. Beijing is also sponsoring politico-military schools in Ghana and Tanzania. And China has also funded Namibia’s Command and Staff College as well as developing training programs for the Sri Lankan military.
“Given China’s military training programs and their potentially serious consequences for the governance of Commonwealth countries, the U.K. should consider how best to rejuvenate shared Commonwealth military aid and education programs and to reinforce the Commonwealth’s liberal and democratic structures of government in the coming decades,” say the authors of the Civitas report.
Last year in testimony before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government, academic Paul Nantulya, compared U.S. training programs for foreign officers with China’s. “China approaches military training in fundamentally different ways from the U.S. where the concept of an apolitical military runs through the entire training experience,” he said.