Beijing has used the occasion of President Obama's visit to sub-Saharan Africa to announce that it will for the first time deploy combat troops on an overseas peacekeeping mission, contributing soldiers to the United Nations force being assembled for Mali.
"We will send comprehensive security forces to Mali for the first time" Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, said in a speech at a security forum in Beijing on Wednesday, the Financial Times reported.
The expected dispatch of about 500 Peoples Liberation Army combat troops would mark a major shift in policy for China, which has previously limited its peacekeeping contributions to engineers, medical and aid personnel. China currently has about 1,900 troops involved in UN missions, the most of any country on the Security Council.
Aboard Air Force One en route to South Africa from Senegal, Obama downplayed China's growing influence in Africa, part of Beijing's continuing efforts to expand its economic and military clout internationally to challenge the superpower status of the U.S.
In recent years, China has displaced the U.S. as Africa's leading trade partner, and China has major mining and other commercial interests on the continent. While Chinese President Xi Jinping has made frequent trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Obama is on his first substantive visit there.
"This is not the Cold War," Obama said in a session with reporters at the back of the plane. "You've got one global market, and if countries that are now entering into middle-income status see Africa as a big opportunity for them, that can potentially help Africa."
"What we have going for us, though, is our values, our approach to development. Our approach to democracy remains one that is greatly preferable to a country like Senegal," Obama said.
African nations "recognize that China's primary interest is being able to obtain access for natural resources in Africa to feed the manufacturers in export-driven policies of the Chinese economy," he said. Chinese troops in Mali would signify "a major breakthrough in our participation in peacekeeping," said Chen Qian, head of the UN Association of China, a Chinese think tank, the Financial Times reported. "With this, our contribution will be complete. We will have policemen, medical forces, engineering troops and combat troops."
In a visit to Beijing last week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised China for its "strong and growing operational and political engagement with peacekeeping."
The UN peacekeeping force of about 12,800 troops was expected to deploy to Mali next month to begin displacing French troops who entered the country in January to push back Islamic rebels who had taken over large swaths of northern Mali.
France has committed to withdrawing its 4,000 troops by the end of the year but has pledged to leave behind trainers and advisors for Mali's military.
Defense Department officials had no immediate response to the reports of China's coming military involvement in Mali.
The U.S. military has established training and advisory roles with sub-Saharan African nations to shore up local governments and counter the influence of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, and that role was expected to be enhanced under Army Gen. David Rodriguez, new head of the African Command.
In his initial visits to the region, Rodriguez quietly stopped in Mali to meet his French counterparts and gauge the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to the French effort.
The U.S. provided air transport for French troops during the initial stages of the French campaign, and the U.S. has continued to supply aerial refueling for French Mirage and Rafale fighters in ground support missions. The U.S. has also set up a drone base in neighboring Niger to fly unarmed reconnaissance missions for the French over Mali.
Through June 24, U.S. tankers flying out of the U.S. base at Moron, Spain, have delivered more than 1.5 million gallons of jet fuel to French warplanes, according to Africom.