When a press release announced that US National Security Adviser John Bolton would unveil a new US strategy for Africa, it raised the question: What was the old one?
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the US risks losing sway over the 1.2 billion people who inhabit the world’s second-most populous continent. Bolton’s speech on Thursday last week acknowledged as much, as he framed the administration of US President Donald Trump’s strategic rethink around countering gains made by the nation’s primary geopolitical rivals.
“Africa is incredibly important,” Bolton said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If we didn’t understand it before, the competition posed by China and Russia and others should highlight that for us.”
However, much of the strategy Bolton laid out, including counterterrorism and overhauling foreign aid, might result in a more narrow focus on the continent.
Moreover, the administration’s trade initiatives would not arrive for years to come.
That means the US could miss investment opportunities in a region with the world’s fastest-growing middle class, a continent that would account for half of global population growth by 2050.
Led by Ghana and Kenya, African nations are stitching together a trade union designed to bolster intra-Africa commerce. The initiative has a long way to go, but if it can achieve critical mass, the continent’s combined GDP would be almost the size of Germany’s.
While the US sorts out its priorities, China has spent the past few years investing more on the continent — in physical and financial terms, as well as in so-called soft power. It has ramped up scholarships for African academics, deployed peacekeepers to UN missions in Mali and South Sudan, and sent scientists to help address key economic and social needs.
When Ivory Coast put out a tender to build a bridge over the lagoon in its commercial hub of Abidjan, 10 of the 18 companies that expressed interest were either Chinese firms or in partnership with them. None were from the US. China State Construction Engineering Corp got the deal.
Africa is a pivotal part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative, with Chinese-backed investments ranging from Ivory Coast power plants to a Rwandan airport and a railway in Kenya.
“There is no way that America can really compete with China,” said Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town, who dismissed Bolton’s speech as “rhetorical swiping” at China and Russia.
“No real resources are going to flow” and those that do will probably be strategic, he said, targeted at places where the US has a military presence or terrorism concerns.
The US$191 million Ivory Coast bridge investment highlights how far ahead China is — now flexing its muscle in a part of Africa that until recently its businesspeople showed little interest in: the French-speaking west. The region’s fast-growing economies have also seen a spectacular rise in loans from China.
It is not that the US is not engaged with Africa. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, initiative has invested more than US$80 billion to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, providing nearly 15 million people with life-saving drugs this year alone. Aid programs target agricultural productivity, healthcare systems and access to clean water.
Moreover, the US is the single biggest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping missions China increasingly participates in.
However, the US footprint is shrinking: Trump’s administration has sought to reduce foreign aid — Bolton said a review of aid effectiveness is near completion — and the Pentagon has signaled it is shifting its focus to “great power” standoffs in other parts of the globe. Symbolically, the administration has struggled to get past derogatory statements the US president made about African nations last year.
Bolton criticized what he said was China’s “strategic use of debt” to hold African countries “captive” to its demands, but he did not outline any detailed strategy to counter that with US alternatives.
One country that is offering alternatives is Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin planning to host the first ever Russia-Africa summit with more than 50 African leaders next year. Lacking the financial muscle of its main rivals, the US, Europe and China, Russia is carving out a niche by shoring up strongmen in unstable, but potentially resource-rich states that have a taste for Russian weaponry.
Bolton criticized Beijing’s engagements as being “very systematically designed to tilt whole regions of the world” in China’s direction, especially those rich in mineral resources, and said the US must “wake up” and foster independence for African nations.
However, he also talked about winding down peacekeeping efforts, saying that African governments needed to do it for themselves, and signaled declining foreign aid.
“Bolton talks as if the US strides across the world in a way that the US no longer does, for multiple reasons, and not just Donald Trump, because China is in the ascendancy,” said John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “What’s really important is hunger and unemployment and the population boom and demographic implications and climate change and things like that which he doesn’t even touch on.”
China is focusing on exactly those issues, said Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Institute.
She cited Chinese scientists who have been deployed to look at providing water in drought-stricken regions across much of Africa, something she said would be “a lifeline” for many of those nations.
“They’re taking a long view, understanding what the needs of the countries are, whether it’s in reducing energy poverty by growing their energy resources or providing water,” she said. “We’re missing this at our peril.”
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