The US Needs a Real Plan to Counter China in Africa
The current toothless strategy won’t prevent Beijing from, say, squeezing supply lines to America's biggest African base.
The Trump administration has made it clear that it views China as one of the greatest threats to America’s economic and security interests. Unfortunately, the administration treats China’s activities in Africa with less urgency. The president’s new Africa strategy lacks the teeth necessary to counter China’s massive investments in infrastructure and military expansion on the African continent. A much more aggressive plan to beat China is needed.
Early in Trump’s tenure, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I think China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025." A few months later, the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy, which said, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
Since then, Trump’s top lieutenants have reiterated the warnings with monotonous consistency. In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “China presents the greatest challenge that the United States will face in the medium to long term.” FBI Director Christopher Wray repeated his own warnings about China, saying: “No country poses a broader, more severe long-term threat to our nation’s economy and cyber infrastructure than China. China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower, and they’re using illegal methods to get there.”
In response, the White House has reversed the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” It has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposed a draconian tariffs regime on China, and is more-aggressively challenging China’s military presence in the Pacific through more robust naval deployments and military exercises. In November, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “China initiative” to take on Beijing’s pattern of theft of intellectual property, bribery and corruption, and illegal business deals.
But what about in Africa?
In December, National Security Advisor John Bolton highlighted the Chinese threat to Africa, saying: “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands…. Such predatory actions are sub-components of broader Chinese strategic initiatives…to develop a series of trade routes leading to and from China with the ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance.”
The example of Djibouti is a case in point. China has resorted to bribes, intimidation, and legal chicanery to displace U.S. allies and seize control of one of the world’s most strategic nodes of transport. Through targeted expenditures on infrastructure such as a new presidential palace, an international airport and a railroad, China “acquired” the contract to manage the port of Djibouti, which is critical to America’s military operations across Africa, the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Soon, Bolton warned, “Djibouti may hand over control of the Doraleh Container Terminal, a strategically-located shipping port on the Red Sea, to Chinese state-owned enterprises. Should this occur, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa—astride major arteries of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia—would shift in favor of China.”
Djibouti and China are now developing and operating six new ports and free zones, in violation of a competitively awarded contract to the UAE-based port operator Dubai Ports World. Prompted by Beijing, the government of Djibouti seized the entire port terminal infrastructure, unilaterally terminating the contracts it had with DP World. Despite a July ruling by the London Court of International Arbitration that the contract termination was unlawful and should cease, China and Djibouti have chosen to simply ignore it — and the court’s subsequent statement threatening further legal action. In response to this brazen flouting of international law , DP World has brought suit against port operator China Merchants, claiming that the Chinese unlawfully induced — a legal nicety for “bribed”— Djibouti and its president, Ismail Guelleh, to breach various contracts and agreements.
So why is this arcane legal maneuvering significant? Because the U.S. military and intelligence community rely on the port of Djibouti for Camp Lemonnier, our only permanent base in Africa and one that is on the front lines of the war on terror in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. DP World, with its close relationship to the UAE’s pro-American leadership, ensured unencumbered operations in and around the port. We cannot expect the same from the Chinese. In fact, a report that the Chinese military blinded American pilots of military aircraft using lasers is a worrisome indicator of just how the Chinese will act toward their U.S. tenants in the port.
Congress, reacting to U.S. military leaders’ concerns over China’s “seizure” of the port of Djibouti, has instructed the Pentagon to look at other basing options in the region. But where is the president?
America will pay a price if it fails to back up its words with deeds in Africa. The case of Djibouti presents an opportunity for the Trump administration to walk the walk in its efforts to push back against a newly aggressive China. We should use the courts to take on China in legal jurisdictions around the world. African leaders who fail to heed Bolton’s warnings about upholding the rule of law should pay consequences. Failure to aggressively counter China and the African leaders it buys would be a gross abdication of American power and responsibility.
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