A rigid hull inflatable boat makes for USNS Spearhead in the Gulf of Guinea during a passenger exchange of Gabon Navy Sailors and Gendarmerie members during a boarding exercise, March 19, as part of Exercise Obangame/Saharan Express 2016.

A rigid hull inflatable boat makes for USNS Spearhead in the Gulf of Guinea during a passenger exchange of Gabon Navy Sailors and Gendarmerie members during a boarding exercise, March 19, as part of Exercise Obangame/Saharan Express 2016. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amy M. Ressler

Africa, Great Power Competition, and the US Navy

Russia and China want to leverage Africa's people and resources. U.S. Naval Forces Africa aspires to work with African partners to bring about a secure and prosperous continent.

No less than Europe and the Pacific, Africa is caught up in the great power competition described in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. As Russia and China intensify their efforts to leverage Africa’s people and resources, the continent’s future lies in the balance, with direct impact on both global and American security. 

Africa is well positioned for economic and industrial expansion by its strategic location and fast-growing population. The continent is currently home to one-sixth of humanity; by 2050, it will support one in four humans, of whom three-fifths will be under the age of 24. Their collective potential will only be realized, however, if Africa bolsters its security institutions across national, regional, and local levels. U.S. Naval Forces Africa aspires to work with our African partners to achieve shared objectives centered on the belief that a secure and prosperous African continent will benefit all. Alongside the Naval Forces Africa, other Western partners and allies continue to support our African partners. If we aren’t there to help, surely others will rush to fill the gap. 

If the South China Sea and the attempted illegal annexation of Crimea are any indication, China and Russia are opportunists who will seek to destabilize and exploit the continent for their own national priorities. These activities will not help the people of Africa and will do little to build the necessary security environment that allows for economic opportunity across the vast continent, from the massive megacities to rural towns. 

For example, China has tripled its loans to Africa since 2012, making Beijing a major debt holder for multiple African governments as well as the second largest supplier of weapons to African nations. China has notoriously used debt to strong-arm countries throughout the world—they are conducting a form of coercive debt diplomacy. Consider Sri Lanka’s ballooning debt; China forgave a $1 billion loan in exchange for 15,000 acres of land and control of a port facility––which was built by a Chinese-owned entity––for 99 years. At the same time, it is very likely that the U.S. Navy and our partner nations will encounter illegal Chinese fishermen in African territorial waters, as they seek to take advantage of African resources for their own benefit. Over the summer, Gabonese marines detained the Chinese-flagged Haixin 27 and arrested the crew, having discovered a hold full of fish and a bridge with no fishing logbook. Two years ago, the Haixin 23 and Haixin 28, both also flagged to China, were intercepted illegally fishing in Gabonese territorial waters. This shows China’s disregard for the laws of the very nations they are courting. 

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Russia’s intentions are not much better. By employing oligarch-funded, quasi-mercenary military advisors, particularly in countries where leaders seek unchallenged autocratic rule, Russia looks to gain access to natural resources on favorable, exploitative terms. These countries have elected leaders that mortgage mineral rights for a fraction of their worth to secure Russian weapons. In recent years, they have continued to reinforce relationships with their traditional weapons customers.

By contrast, the East African country of Djibouti is home to a U.S. military base named Camp Lemonnier, which has been in operation for more than a decade and employs more than 1,000 Djiboutians. Even before you start counting the jobs created by U.S. contracts with Djiboutian companies, the United States is the second-largest employer in Djibouti after the Djiboutian government itself. The U.S. military provides many contracts to Djiboutian firms that support the base as well as the local economy, totaling more than $200 million annually in direct and indirect payments to Djibouti. That budget constitutes nearly 14 percent of Djibouti’s gross domestic product. These statistics do not include the training and support the U.S. Navy has provided to help Djibouti map its own trajectory. The differences between what we aspire for our African partners and what China and Russia seek to squeeze out of them could not be farther apart. 

NAVAF has long worked with its African partners through cooperative initiatives that mutually benefit them, the African continent, and the broader global security environment. Unlike other countries, the U.S. seeks to provide assistance to improve African capabilities and prosperity – without seeking to exploit the continent. 

The U.S. Navy views maritime security as critical to the overall security and stability of the continent. No fewer than 38 of Africa’s 54 countries are coastal nations that play a critical role in the overall security and stability of the continent. As countries improve maritime security in and around the continent’s coasts, the institutions that are responsible for security and governance are strengthened, preserving the resources and heritage for the future. 

Ultimately, Djibouti and all African countries have every right to pick their own friends. Yet many are increasingly viewing the United States as their partner of choice for a more stable and prosperous Africa.

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