Deeper Tent Poles in Africa

While China is the largest trading partner in Africa, a second tent-pole in their strategy is the more muscular security approach it’s been taking in the region. Meanwhile China has been making deals across the continent, protecting its interests with steel. It is this dynamic that will weaken the United States’ toolbox in the region going forward.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2011

During the U.S. election, there was limited analysis to what the Trump administration’s policy would look like in Africa. African analysts got a clearer picture on what that policy might be during the transition. The State Department landing team took an aggressive approach in asking the State Department about the efficacy of foreign aid and why more success hasn’t been attained against Al-Shabab in Somalia. Practical observers often question the structure of U.S. foreign aid programs as well as why extremist groups continue to thrive on the continent; but it was the line of questioning the landing team devised that worried career diplomats most. The Trump administration’s antipathy towards its most important allies doesn’t forebode well for stronger relations between the United States and Africa. It spells trouble for African strategic maneuvering with America and China. Unlike Asian countries that can straddle the divide between Chinese economic largesse and security arrangements with the United States, the extent of U.S. involvement in Africa revolves around counter-terrorism, human rights, and public health. The United States contributes billions of dollars a year to the World Bank and IMF. Since 2004 over $70 billion has been spent funding health programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR),

Recently, the United States deepened ties with Africa by investing in efforts like Power Africa, a public-private partnership focused on sustainable electricity and the widely hailed U.S.-Africa Business Forum. The aim of the forum was to promote the expansion of trade and investment with the United States. While a step in the right direction, engagement must be deeper if the U.S. is to compete in an atmosphere China dominates.

While current U.S.-Africa trade volume stands at $37 billion, accounting for 4%, China-Africa trade volume surpasses $300 billion, accounting for over 14%. These trade statistics do not account for other forms of FDI and infrastructure investing. These nascent efforts spelled hope in new American interests and investments in the region. Although there have been some bright spots, the Trump administration appears uninterested in continuing the progress made under previous administrations. “Deal diplomacy” doesn’t extend to a continent still lacking in infrastructure. It is this lack of American imagination regarding strategic benefits in the region that China has been exploiting for decades.

American neglect of Africa allows continued Chinese dominance to go unabated. Chinese dominance has lately taken a more muscular approach on the continent as relations between the two trading partners matures and as China desires to both protect its interests while projecting an elder statesman’s role. China has been engaging in peacekeeping missions whilst building a naval infrastructure to project force in East Africa.

South Sudan, a nascent democracy awash in oil, has received billions of dollars in investments from state-owned Chinese enterprises. It’s also a country that is embroiled in years long civil and ethnic conflict. In 2015, China displayed its elder statesman role when China deployed over a thousand peacekeepers to South Sudan. The deployment of the peacekeepers comes after many failed ceasefires brokered by international parties between the fighting groups. Although the peacekeepers are relegated to keeping the peace in the camps, it has not been lost on international observers that China’s newfound benevolence extends to a country where it has invested numerous resources.

While this was China’s first peacekeeping mission, it was a natural extension of its anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. During the height of Somali piracy, China deployed its navy to patrol waters off the Horn of Africa. Instead of conducting joint missions with other military forces like the U.S. Navy, China chose to do so unilaterally. This was a result of its refusal to install the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System, a U.S. created software that allows for intercommunication between navies. Patrolling the Horn of Africa is a way for China to protect its vital oil interests.

As a way of institutionalizing this oversight, China is constructing a naval base in Djibouti, near Camp Lemonnier, an American installation. While the Chinese military only describes it as a “support facility,” it serves as an important logistical base for its regional military and economic activities. The Chinese military can use the base as a staging ground for rescuing its citizens from quagmires in Libya and Yemen and as a military counterweight to Africa’s largest free trade zone, which it constructed with Djibouti.

Currently, over 1500 American special force commandos deployed in Africa are doing everything from counter-terrorism to military training in 33 African countries. While U.S. engagement is based on protecting its domestic national security interests, China’s buildup in the region is focused on protecting its economic interests. There is greater breadth in U.S. military options. Trump’s seeming ambivalence will further cement China’s influence in the region. Ambivalence, however, is too expensive in the fastest growing region in the world. In the near future, American foreign policy strategists will have to grapple with coming before the African Union in Addis Ababa. These strategists will fly in to an airport built and financed by China, driven on roads funded from Chinese development banks and ushered into headquarters gifted from China and protected by Chinese peacekeepers.

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  • Eli Boardman

    I couldn’t agree more with this stance. China’s ability to quickly and quietly fund massive projects worldwide gives them clout in far flung countries, but they also inherit the risk of being seen as an exploiter and manipulator. With a world that is slowly becoming more tolerant, the negative press could swing international favor back towards the United States and soft power projects. But for now, China reigns supreme in Africa. A quote from Richard Dowden’s ‘Africa’ sums up China’s role quite well: ‘When China says they will build a road, one month later, we have our road’.

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