The US-China ‘cold war’ in Africa


United States (US) President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Africa demonstrates renewed US interest in creating partnerships with African nations, but it also signifies the continent’s growing role as a staging ground for the ‘cold war’ between the US and China.

The tour was a response to the fact that Chinese trade with Africa – worth an estimated $200 billion in 2012 – is more than double that of the US. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his predecessor have made five tours to Africa in the past decade, while Obama only made his first full tour this year. Moreover, the Chinese government has allocated $7,2 billion to the expansion of Chinese media in Africa, whereas the West has been steadily decreasing its media presence.

Although both countries state that their objectives in Africa are to promote development and mutually beneficial trade, US and Chinese interests on the continent are considerably more complex. The US is primarily concerned with security risks in Africa– such as the spread of Islamic extremism and transnational organised crime– and countering Chinese political influence and economic expansion. China’s focus is on extracting the raw materials necessary to support its economic growth and soaring energy demands, while also trying to cement its place as a global leader and champion of development.

These interests are most evident in the two nations’ differing approaches to Africa. China publicly insists upon a policy of ‘non-interference’, according to which it will not impose political preconditions or intervene in the internal affairs of any nation. This policy has proved inviting to African leaders weary of Western meddling, and allows China to maintain influence in parts of Africa that the West views as undemocratic. China imports about a third of its oil, for example, from African nations like Sudan and Angola: regimes accused of widespread human rights abuses and political oppression.

China utilises state-owned enterprises to undertake infrastructure projects across Africa. These projects are usually funded by Chinese state loans, which are then repaid by recipient countries through the export of resources. The Chinese-owned enterprises mostly employ workers flown in from China; and Chinese engineering companies have faced international criticism for their lack of compliance with labour, safety and environmental laws. Sinohydro Corporation is one of China’s largest state-owned infrastructure development firms and has been active in over 70 projects across Africa. In 2008, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervened to rewrite the debt terms of a $9 billion Chinese aid package to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) because the loans were deemed excessively burdensome. Sinohydro Corporation received a majority stake in copper and cobalt mines as part of the deal.

In contrast with Chinese foreign policy, the US severs diplomatic recognition of and aid to nations that experience illegitimate changes in leadership. Due to its focus on security issues, the US has been enhancing its military and law enforcement presence on the continent. Besides its largest military base, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, it also maintains drone bases in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and the Seychelles. The US Air Force struck a deal in 2013 to build a drone base in Niger as a response to expanding Islamic extremism in the Maghreb. In an effort to counter illicit drug trafficking, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) trains forces and conducts operations from a number of West and East African nations, with a budget of $50 million in 2012 (a 700% budgetary increase from 2009).

The contrast between US and Chinese policy in Africa is most evident when examining the small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. Following a military coup in April 2012, the US severed formal diplomatic ties and aid, yet it continues to increase its law enforcement and intelligence capabilities in the area. This is because the corruption so prevalent in Bissau and the country’s location make it a central hub for cocaine smuggled from South America to Europe. It is estimated that drug smuggling profits in Guinea-Bissau are larger than the country’s gross domestic product. In April 2013, the DEA arrested the former head of the country’s navy in a sting operation during which he agreed to smuggle $350 million worth of cocaine. Such actions are evidence that the US is hardening its approach to the region.

However, China continues its diplomatic relations with and financial support to Guinea-Bissau despite the country’s instability. China has financed, among other things, the Ceba River Dam, international scholarships, rice shipments and even unpaid government salaries. In return, China has received exclusive rights to Guinea-Bissau’s deep-water fisheries and is involved in oil exploration to extract Bissau’s suspected reserves. Chinese companies were recently criticised by environmentalists for the deforestation of Bissauan territory, shipping over 800 containers of protected timber to China in June 2013. Thus China provides much-needed donations and development, and then utilises its influence for the extraction of resources.

In order to counter Chinese influence in Africa, Obama announced the Power Africa Initiative (PAI), pledging $7 billion in development money to bring 10 000 megawatts of electricity to underdeveloped regions. The initiative will provide energy to 20 million people over the next five years. He also announced the Trade Africa Initiative (TAI), aimed at promoting intra-African trade, as well as a third programme promising fellowships in Washington for future African leaders. These initiatives fall short of similar ones promised by Beijing, which has pledged $20 billion in development loans to Africa over the next three years.

West African nations like Guinea-Bissau are central to US security concerns, but Obama’s PAI and TAI programmes are focused elsewhere in Africa. Traditional US partners such as Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana will be the beneficiaries. And while these countries are important US regional allies, they do not pose the same present-day security threats as the long-neglected West African nations. Approximately $13,5 billion worth of cocaine is transported through West Africa annually, largely benefitting corrupt political elites and terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

West Africa is also home to many large Lebanese communities, some of which have proven ties to Hezbollah. The US government recently settled with the Lebanese-Canadian Bank (LCB) for a $102 million forfeiture of seized funds. The LCB was involved in an international money-laundering scheme in which Lebanese financial institutions with links to Hezbollah used the US financial system to launder revenues from narcotics trafficking and other criminal activities through Togo, Benin and Sierra Leone.

In order to counter such security threats, it is vital that the US maintains a presence and influence in failed and criminalised states such as Guinea-Bissau, where transnational spoilers find refuge. It is the responsibility of the US as a global leader to demonstrate its willingness to partner with those nations in Africa that may be at less than ideal stages of political stability.

The US needs to shift its development spotlight from its traditional partners in East and Southern Africa towards West Africa, where many countries have considerable potential to become either strategic allies or the epicentres of transnational threats. Development programmes like PAI should be used to create opportunities in countries where people are forced to turn to illicit activities due to high unemployment and the lack of access to basic services. By engaging with non-traditional allies across Africa, the US will be able to compete with Chinese expansion across the continent and develop a softer means of influence among local populations and governments. For African nations, the ‘cold war’ between the US and China represents new opportunities that governments and regional economic communities could turn into win-win solutions through better governance and strategic vision.

Kyle Benjamin Schneps, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

Republished with permission from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Africa. The original story can be found here