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Great Power Rivalry Reaches Africa

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 09, 2019

    The United States finds its position increasingly challenged by two emerging powers with global ambitions, China and Russia. This rivalry now threatens to engulf the continent of Africa as well. China has expanded its economic interests in Africa even as the US and European countries pulled back from the continent. During the last one decade, China has become the largest trading partner of Africa. Punching above its weight, Russia has also joined the competition and its presence in the continent, which was dormant after World War II, now extends from the Central African Republic (CAR) to Eritrea.1 In response to this new geo-strategic competition, the US has recently devised a new ‘Africa strategy’

    The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union had left the US without any rival. As a result, in the post-Cold War era, every year from 1994 to 2001, the US considered terrorism as a significant danger to its national security.2 By 1998, terrorism ranked in the top tier of threats for the US, along with other transnational dangers such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In February 2001, seven months before September 11, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) testified that terrorism was the single greatest threat to US national security.3 That belief, which was strengthened by the September 11 attacks and the War on Terror that the US waged thereafter, is now changing. There seems to be a consensus among both Republicans and Democrats that China poses a more immediate threat to US interests and its security than anything else.

    This change in the source of threat perception is now getting reflected in changes being effected in American policy. The US is now trying to counter China through various means and in various regions. One of the largest battle grounds is likely to be Africa. In 2017, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. The Chinese military base is in close vicinity of the US base in Djibouti which had been established earlier to aid counter terror operations in Africa.

    Speaking at the Washington-based conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, on 13 December 2018, the US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that in Africa the greatest threat is not from poverty or Islamic extremism but from the expansionist policies of China and Russia. He accused these countries of deliberately and aggressively targeting investments in the continent to gain a competitive advantage over the United States. He also alleged that China was using bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to make African states comply with its wishes and demands. According to Bolton, China’s ultimate goal of using its predatory influence over Africa to advance its global dominance would ultimately leave the continent in a far worse shape. Bolton also accused Russia of seeking to increase its influence in Africa by advancing political and economic relationships with little regard for the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance. He also blamed Russia for continuing to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes in the United Nations and claimed that both China and Russia were extracting resources from the region for their own benefit.

    This has led to the Trump administration’s framing of a new Africa strategy whereby it plans to give more attention to the African continent. The new Africa strategy is designed to benefit both America as well as Africa. Bolton stated that under “our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities in the region." The new strategy is expected to bring new jobs to America by increasing trade with Africa, which, in turn, would also be beneficial for the African people. In short, it is transactional in nature.

    Under its new Africa Strategy, the US now also wants to re-evaluate its engagement in UN peacekeeping operations in the continent and discontinue the ineffective ones. It also says that America would no longer provide indiscriminate assistance to all African countries. Instead, it would select its partners on the basis of their voting patterns in the United Nations. It would also not support countries that are governed by corrupt leaders who just siphon off money as a result of which benefit flows to the people.

    The new US strategy, to a large measure, is also designed to counter growing Chinese influence on the continent. As part of this policy, the Trump administration in October 2018 decided to create a US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) with a funding of $ 60 billion. This would provide loan and risk insurance to American companies to make it easier for them to invest in Africa. However, this American plan pales into insignificance when compared with the Chinese plan to spend $60 billion over the next three years.

    The US also wants African nations to take ownership over peace and security in their neighbourhood. However, this approach of the US has not worked in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. African nations need sufficient stability to attract foreign investment, which they are incapable of achieving in the near future on their own. Also, many African leaders who are perceived to be corrupt prefer Chinese economic assistance as it does not ask uncomfortable questions about the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Moreover, Bolton has himself conceded that the US has limited resources to compete with the tens of billions of dollars that China is pouring into Africa. In this situation, it is not very clear how effective America’s new strategy would be in Africa in containing China. But it has definitely made African people worried that their continent might be used to advance the agenda of major global powers.

    Dr Anand Kumar is currently Visiting Professor and Chair (India Studies) at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Salem Solomon, “From the CAR to Eritrea, Russia’s African Ambitions Unfold,” at
    • 2. Amy B. Zegart, “An Empirical Analysis of Failed Intelligence Reforms before September 11,”

      Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 121, No. 1 (Spring 2006), p. 40.

    • 3. Ibid