The U.S.-Chinese War Over Africa

American and Chinese efforts in Africa can be characterized by two contrasting outlooks. The United States focuses on security, the Chinese on economic investment. Contrary to Howard French’s claims in his recent book, Chinas Second Continent, that Chinese settlers constitute “the beginnings of a new empire,” Beijing’s relationship with the continent is more nuanced than that – China is a burgeoning world power in desperate need of resources and profits. Unlike its European predecessors, Beijing has no interest in re-imagining colonies in its own image. Yet, its attention toward the continent may foretell a larger strategic competition between the United States and China. Whereas the Chinese look at Africa and see dollar signs, Americans look at the continent and see dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them. This may not be the first time China has made advances in Africa. But this time around, its economic might and no-strings-attached sales pitch may prove a winning combination.


Pivot to Africa

The U.S. recognized the need to boost its presence in Africa because of its geographic and strategic importance. The establishment of U.S. Africa Command and its 2008 designation as a separate combatant command exhibit America’s renewed commitment to security on the continent. America has expanded airstrips to accommodate increasing personnel and logistical traffic and ramped up its training and liaison support of African militaries and intelligence agencies and institutions such as the African Union. U.S. Special Forces, intelligence officers and security contractors have been increasingly employed to target militants. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a trip to the region, linked U.S. assistance with a country’s democratic achievements.

Washington now has a military and intelligence presence in over a dozen countries there. For example, it employs private contractors to fly light civilian aircraft out of Burkina Faso over western Africa to track militants. Djibouti is its largest permanent base, home to 4,000 U.S. personnel and a hub for UAVs and manned reconnaissance aircraft. Washington also flies manned reconnaissance aircraft from Uganda, assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony’s LRA. It has also established drone bases in Niger and Ethiopia, expanded facilities in Kenya for training African troops, and deployed forces to Mali to assist British and French efforts following the 2012 coup. The U.S. has also sent troops to Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Congo and the Central African Republic in recent years. Most recently, it deployed a contingent to Nigeria to assist in the search for Boko Haram militants.

In contrast, China has focused on economic partnership and development. China’s rapid growth and demand for natural resources requires it to look outside its borders for stable and affordable resources. In this regard, Africa provides China with a bonanza: Over 85% of China’s imports from Africa consist of raw natural resources. Trade between Africa and China has swelled by 30% per annum over the last ten years, while trade volume has been more than double that with the United States. China has also invested in roads, railways and ports to help transport these resources, benefitting Africans as well. For example, China recently pledged to build a $3.8 billion railway in Kenya. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the same African countries John Kerry had just a few weeks before.

Whereas the Chinese look at Africa and see dollar signs, the United States looks at the continent and sees dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them. 

Unlike the United States and other Western trade partners, China does not condition its relationships in Africa with political or ideological commitments. This advantage is appreciated by African strongmen subject to harangues from the West on democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Still, some fear China’s goals are purely mercenary and an attempt to “lock up” all of Africa’s resources and that China will abandon the continent once it has gotten what it wants.


Reading Mao in Kinshasa

This is not for the first time Africa has become a chessboard of global competition between great powers, especially China. Though Washington and Moscow competed in Africa, the more interesting story is the competition between Beijing and Moscow for “hearts and minds” in Africa. As the Sino-Soviet Split deepened in the early 1960s, China began to challenge the Soviet Union for leadership of the socialist bloc. It saw an opportunity to build independent influence in states recently liberated from or still fighting for independence from European colonialism. Its influence was strongest in nearby North Korea and the former French colonies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However, as Jeremy Friedman writes, China presented a real challenge to the Soviets in Africa as well.

It attempted to create an Afro-Asian bloc and played up its own armed guerrilla insurgency and quest for independence and development as shared traits with Africans struggling for the same. It supported Algerian independence when Moscow did not and pictured Khrushchev’s peaceful co-existence with the West and disarmament talks as evidence of lack of support for armed socialist revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese propaganda depicted the Cuban Missile Crisis as Moscow backing down from the U.S. China greatly increased its African propaganda efforts by increasing local-language radio broadcasts and the distribution of books and pamphlets throughout the continent, far outpacing Soviet and even Western efforts. China seemed for a time to be winning the ideological battle with Moscow for leadership of socialism in the Third World.

But by 1963, it became apparent that though China was winning ideological and propaganda battles in Africa and elsewhere, it could not compete with the Soviet Union—or the West—in terms of material and financial support to socialist movements in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Cold War China lacked the capacity to provide large amounts of troops, weaponry or money to allies in far off places such as Africa. It could not buy nor project power. The Soviet Union and the West could. China lost its first round in the competition for Africa.

China is in a quite different position today. It is an economic powerhouse with the clear ability to contribute large amounts of wealth to the economies of African countries with the natural resources they seek. Today it is able to build the roads, railways and ports it could not afford during the Cold War and which the Soviets and the West could. While its first efforts in Africa were driven and focused purely on communist ideology and the shared revolutionary struggle, its African efforts today are marked by a clear lack of any connection to ideology. It buys resources and builds necessary infrastructure seemingly with no strings attached. Additionally, its relationship with the U.S. itself is one characterized by mutual dependence, rather than clear opposition as the competition during the Cold War was. African countries do not have to choose definitively between East and West.

While Chinese policy is to remain militarily disentangled from events that do not directly affect its interests, it has shown a greater willingness to contribute to African security. Beijing, for example, was instrumental in the passage of Security Council 1769 in 2007, authorizing a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has provided over 1500 troops to UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa, more than any other member of the UN Security Council. Its navy is part of the joint multinational effort to combat piracy off the African coast. Even Chinese aid and arms transfers to Africa have been misrepresented, as they give more military arm and aid to democratic regimes than the United States, according to a 2012 study.

In the mainstream narrative of the Cold War, the focus was placed on the conflict between the United States versus a monolithic Soviet Union, which supported socialist movements from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. But this was never the case. Moscow was not the puppet-master it was believed to be. China and the Soviet Union fell out badly beginning in the late 1950s, and the relationship remained rather sour until the 1980s. This has perpetuated a view that China has always been isolationist and lacking in ambitions overseas, as well as concerns over the “rise” of China being over-inflated. China, in fact, attempted to project power outside of its own borders before—in Africa specifically. Previously it tried and failed because it lacked the resources to become a global power. But that has all changed.

Beijing is once again putting up stiff competition for Africa, this time for Washington instead of Moscow. Its “no strings attached” partnerships are attractive to many African governments. America’s financial and military aid, by contrast, often comes with strings attached, such as criteria for good governance and human rights. China’s efforts focus on obtaining the natural resources it requires and pays African states well in return in terms of both sales and infrastructure development to obtain them with no added conditions. With $2 trillion in trade, China may well win its second round in the scramble for Africa.


Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Baghdad, Iraq and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRN, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.


[Photo credit: GovernmentZA]


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