Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour of Africa is nearing its end. After hopping from country to country for the past several days, Tillerson is scheduled to return to Washington on March 13th.
Some observers in the media have framed Tillerson’s trip as some sort of reconciliation tour, an attempt to smooth over damaged ties with third-world nations in the wake of President Trump’s alleged “shithole countries” comment back in January.
In reality, however, the Secretary's visit to Africa is an attempt to counter the inroads made by one of America’s major adversaries.
China’s increasing penetration into Africa, both militarily and economically, has become a growing concern for both US policymakers and military brass in the recent period.
Back in 2016, China began the construction of its first ever foreign military installation in Djibouti. The base was formally opened on August 1, 2017. China’s stated purpose for the base is to provide logistic support for Chinese troops in the Gulf of Aden, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Africa, and bolster the Chinese navy's efforts to prevent piracy emanating from the Horn of Africa.
But the fact that the base is located just a stone’s throw away from US's Camp Lemonnier, a special-operations outpost, puts China in a position to possibly threaten American military operations in the region. Just a few months before the base’s official opening, head of US Africa Command General Thomas Waldhauser stated in a Washington press conference that “there are some very significant operational security concerns” the US has about China’s presence in Djibouti. In many ways, the Djibouti outpost was the culmination of years of military dabbling in Africa on the part of the PRC, which has included the deployment of troops under the umbrella of UN missions, and the commitment of 8,000 soldiers to the UN peacekeeping standby force in 2015. Currently, more than 2,500 Chinese combat-ready soldiers and police officers are deployed in “blue-helmet” missions across the African continent. Additionally, in the past ten years, China has installed military attachés in at least 14 African countries.
On the economics end, China’s investments in Africa, while going back decades, have spiked sharply in recent years. Within the context of the China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) plan, Beijing has poured billions into massive infrastructure projects in Africa, such as a $3.8 billion, 298-mile stretch of railway connecting Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and its port city of Mombasa. Just three years ago during the 2015 FOCAC meeting in Johannesburg, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in loans and assistance to various projects throughout Africa.
According to American media outlets, the US State Department has expressed “frustration” over China’s expanding influence among several nations in Africa. More recently, in a press conference from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Tillerson warned African leaders of the potential consequences of entering major investment deals with China. While Tillerson insisted that the United States is “not in any way attempting to keep Chinese dollars from Africa,” he urged leaders to “carefully consider the terms of those agreements and not forfeit their sovereignty.”
What Tillerson is suggesting is that inviting Chinese investment is essentially handing over control of resources and territory to the PRC. While the correctness of this claim is debatable, he is sending a clear message to America’s allies in Africa: the US does not want to see African countries becoming too reliant on China as a patron. It should be noted that the US certainly has the leverage to make such a demand. While China surpasses the US in terms of investment in Africa, America gives more in direct aid to the continent – far more than any other country.
While there is room for legitimate concern about China’s military build-up in Africa, many American leaders are expressing optimism for fostering cooperation. “Across the continent, we have shared interests in African stability,” said General Waldhauser in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace. Finding common ground for cooperation with the Chinese as opposed to competing with them is likely the best strategy for the US at this point. There are plenty of shared Sino-American interests in Africa, not the least of which is the fight against jihadism, an effort that includes cutting off finance sources of extremists on the continent, and blocking the advances of militant groups on the ground such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram.
While competition between China and the US will not disappear, incorporating some element of partnership can keep the presence of the US and China in Africa from devolving into an arena of conflict.