China Is Filling the Africa-Sized Gap in US Strategy

UN peacekeepers from China stand at attention during the 2014 visit of the leader of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), at the Chinese camp in Gao.

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UN peacekeepers from China stand at attention during the 2014 visit of the leader of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), at the Chinese camp in Gao.

While U.S. troops fight terror groups, Beijing is locking up supplies of raw materials key to the future of defense.

The Trump administration is hardly the first to give Africa short shrift in its national security considerations. The continent received a measly three paragraphs in the 2015 National Security Strategy, mostly concerning epidemic diseases and intrastate conflict, with bare mentions of economic and political engagement. But the stakes are higher now. China is spreading its economic influence across the continent, and securing the production of minerals key to modern electronics. The Africa-sized gap in U.S. strategic thinking must be closed with comprehensive policy before it threatens the interests of Americans and Africans alike.

Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy toward Africa has stalled. No appointed official has filled the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs since March 2017. (The acting official, Donald Yamamoto, was evasive when asked about substantive policy in a January interview with NPR and had little to say in terms of new initiatives or U.S. leadership on the continent.) On the policy front, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon signaled a major shift toward Africa in September, then departed in early February.

Trump’s new NSS mentions China’s rising influence in Africa, but offers no specific policy to counter with it. Instead, it presents a vague direction to “expand trade and commercial ties” — but Obama-era programs intended for this purpose may be defunded or cut entirely by proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID. Indeed, the most newsworthy events related to U.S.-African diplomatic relations are President Trump referring to Namibia as “Nambia” in September and deriding African countries as “sh*tholes” in January.

The sole area where policymakers have consistently shown strategic interest in Africa is counterterrorism. At any given time, U.S. Africa Command is conducting 100 missions in Africa against jihadist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al-Shabaab in East Africa. The military has stepped up African engagement as part of the broader war on terror, but this approach alone is insufficient.

The lack of initiative outside counterterrorism leaves the U.S. woefully unprepared to deal with China’s growing influence in Africa. Sino-African economic engagement has grown rapidly since the first Forum on Chinese-Africa Cooperation in 2000, and China now stands as Africa’s largest economic partner. Chinese firms handle half of the continent’s internationally contracted construction projects, and account for ten percent of its industrial production. Chinese loans underpin many of Africa’s largest infrastructure projects, including new rail networks in Kenya. Most dangerous to American interests, China is gaining near-monopolistic control of extractive resources such as oil and minerals.

Nor is China’s growing influence limited to the economic realm. In an attempt to step up its military presence, Beijing now fields over 2,000 peacekeepers across Africa, and last year opened its first overseas base, in Djibouti. China is also accelerating its military support to African governments. It funded Tanzania’s new military training center, which opened in early February, and has long been among the largest exporters of arms to Africa. Another key client is Sudan, which remains an international pariah for its complicity in the brutal conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan.

Allowing China to wield unchecked power in Africa and gain control over natural resource production is a serious threat to U.S. strategic interests for two reasons. Firstly, its preference for political and economic stability over democratization means it may find allies amongst the remaining dictatorships on the continent. The U.S. and its allies may lose the ability to pressure authoritarians such as Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila towards political reform if China is willing to back them on the world stage.

Secondly, China is working to secure resources vital to the economies and militaries of the future. Africa is famously rich in natural resources such as oil and diamonds, but it also has large reserves of key minerals used in the production of electronics. While much of American strategic focus is oriented towards ensuring the continuous supply of oil and natural gas, the increase in the number of electronics such as phones, computers, and solar panels will drive up demand for these minerals and make their continued supply a priority for maintaining healthy economies. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone is thought to have one of the world’s largest deposits of cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries that power most electric cars, laptops, and phones. The Central African region in general produces a great deal of tin, copper, gold, and much of the world’s coltan, which is an essential component in electronic circuit boards.

The U.S. military is no less dependent on these materials. Should the U.S. and its allies fail to diversify their supplies, China may be able to undermine the defense economies of its rivals and privilege those of its friends.

It is not too late to reverse these trends. Doubling down on programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act and Trade Africa will encourage mutually beneficial relationships between the U.S. and African countries. Promoting free-trade initiatives will help secure the supply of vital minerals and give Africans a competitive marketplace to sell their natural resources. These efforts, combined with development aid through USAID, would foster a healthy African middle class able and willing to purchase American goods. Given the economic potential of developing such a relationship, and the strategic risk of abdicating the continent to China, the U.S. needs to formulate a comprehensive Africa strategy – and soon.  

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