Under what conditions could the United States regain its position of strategic dominance in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) despite increasingly reduced economic support programs as well as a limited-to-no Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants? With the expansion of China’s economic and military cooperation activities across SSA in the last decade, the United States is increasingly becoming unpopular to much of the region. It is imperative to comprehend that China did not emerge accidentally as a global economic contender. When the United States was engaged in the “Global War Against Terror (GWAT),” following the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks, much of its focus was in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Most of the West, and particularly the United States, thought SSA countries had never been strategically important enough to make the priority list of geopolitically important countries. Historically, only a handful of African countries mattered to the United States: countries such as Morocco remained important due to military and commercial vessels traversing the Straits of Gibraltar into the Alboran Sea; likewise, Egypt mattered due to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea; additionally, Djibouti has also been an important country due to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. It is reasonable to assess that the United States prioritized these countries due to their proximity to those global choke points, but they still did not constitute a serious prioritization on the part of America.
Over the past half century, following their independence from colonial powers, much of SSA has been ruled by state actors who were predominantly rent-seeking and authoritarian. This is particularly important as it demonstrates the ease with which China ventured onto the African continent and immediately established engaged relations. In an effort to satisfy its need for raw materials due to its exponential population growth and scarcity of indigenous materials, China capitalized on opportunities to perform transactional economic activities while forging new relationships and partnerships across SSA. For many years the United States underestimated China as a potential economic competitor to reckon with, especially across Sub-Saharan Africa. China’s economic capacity grew though “race to the bottom” approaches, whereby China flooded African and other world markets with cheaper products, taking away competitive advantage from local businesses. Additionally, while the United States was consumed with fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, China was expanding its economic operations and military cooperation activities across SSA. Even then the US underestimated this new development in global activity, as it saw China’s expansion as unsustainable as well as an insignificant maneuver. The United States was content with its aid packages to SSA, which accounted for less than one percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP),in addition to HIV/AIDS relief programs. Unfortunately for the US, it became quickly seen at the local level that those aid packages could not come close to the stimulus investment/trade transactions China was conducting throughout SSA.
At first glance, SSA countries viewed China’s activities on the continent as primarily humanitarian in nature. In her book entitled Dead Aid, Dr. Dambisa Moyo stated that China’s African role was wider, more sophisticated, and more business-like than any other country at any time in the post-war period. She later recanted those statements after realizing that China was in Africa to compete and not necessarily to provide humanitarian assistance. During the initial stages of China’s movement into SSA, the focus was mostly economic and infrastructure development that was also in support of China’s own domestic economic objectives. These moves are seen through China’s development of road and rail networks, which then feed into several air and seaports across the continent to ease the movement of goods inland to seas and airports across SSA. While that was ongoing, China opened its first military naval base abroad in Djibouti, a small but strategically relevant country of 800,000 inhabitants. Djibouti is also home to several other foreign military bases abroad, including the United States, with approximately 4,500 personnel stationed at Camp Lemonnier, the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Other bases include those of the Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and French militaries.
China provides countries in SSA with suitable capital goods and cheap consumer goods, while those countries supply China with the commodities it needs to fuel its continued economic expansion, such as oil, iron ore, cotton, diamonds and timber. The relationship is complementary because both China and SSA gain from the mutual exchanges. The negative aspect, however, is China’s ability to undercut the market for locally-owned small businesses. China is causing a massive economic imbalance in these countries. For example, oil exports to China account for 86 to 100 percent of all oil exports from Angola, Sudan, Nigeria, and Congo. According to Kaplinsky, SSA’s exports to China were less than one percent of its exports to industrialized countries in 1990; by 2006,the same exports had risen to 11 percent.
Along with the surge in trade, China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased exponentially in SSA due to resource and market considerations. The negative impacts of globalization, trade tariffs, and economic structural adjustment programs (ESAP) set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on indebted countries in SSA, have prompted many of these developing countries to enter into bilateral agreements with China in order to lessen their hardships. Most of the Chinese FDI in SSA are from companies that are government-owned. Chinese FDI in SSA is higher than anywhere else in the world; it increased significantly from approximately $20 million per year in the 1990s to over $25billion by 2013. As one travels through SSA, there is high visibility of Chinese infrastructural development projects, which makes it difficult to differentiate FDI from aid. While the United States is mostly focused on counter-terrorism initiatives and military capacity-building across SSA to counter violent extremism, neglecting economic development and self-sustenance capacity-building in the region basically reverses those former efforts. This is where China exploits the opportunity to address those American shortfalls: its activities in SSA create suitable conditions to be SSA’s preferred partner of choice over the United States.
Formal aid connections between China and SSA were initiated through the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, in October 2000, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, there were agreements to enhance cooperation between China and financial institutions in Africa. It was also during the FOCAC that China expressed its willingness to reduce Africa’s debt burden, promote investment, and assist in the development of human resources in Africa. The superb new African Union (AU) Conference and Office Complex built by the Chinese government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, free of charge to the AU, demonstrates real partnership between Africa and China. Within the past decade, China has committed over $75 billion in aid and development projects throughout Africa. Some International Relations analysts argue that beyond the need for natural resources, China’s infrastructural development projects in SSA – trade, FDI, debt relief, and the provision of medical support – are all part of China’s public diplomacy strategy to build up goodwill and international support for the future. In essence, China has taken advantage to expand its footprint on the resource-rich continent of Africa by providing much-needed aid while developing lasting relationships with SSA that are less punitive than aid from the IMF or USA.
China’s establishment of a naval base in Djibouti, where the United States military has operated in since 2001, was a bold move. China also built and now controls Djibouti’s freight container shipping port, the Port of Doraleh, through which the United States base is resupplied. Djibouti is the only country on the African continent with a United States military base; it is also where the United States projects force into the region, targeting al-Shabab terrorist cells and activities. Obviously, the strategic construction of the Chinese naval base in Djibouti potentially threatens US military and commercial vessels traversing this global choke point, the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Other foreign countries, such as Russia and Turkey, have also expressed interest in foreign bases in Djibouti, but the Djiboutian president cannot part with the $63 million paid by the United States annually to lease Camp Lemonnier. In addition, he also collects rent from the Chinese and Italians also based in the country.
When the United States’ FMF, security cooperation and security assistance (SC/SA) in SSA were drastically reduced and in some cases terminated by the Trump administration, China viewed that as an opportunity to strengthen its military cooperation with SSA countries. Generally, SSA countries prefer American military equipment and training over those of China or Russia. However, due to human rights vetting built into US processes, equipment and training provision to the countries of SSA takes a significant amount of time. China does not have these processes and tends to deliver much faster than the United States. Even though regarded by SSA countries as of lower quality, China delivers the needed equipment and training unlike the United States, which delivers two to three years later and when the operational requirements have become outdated.
If the United States hopes to regain its dominance in SSA, it must change its paternalistic behavior towards African countries and it must regard China as true competition. The United States must discontinue rhetoric to discourage SSA countries from doing business with China, particularly when it is not presenting any alternative options. This will only alienate the United States from the very countries with which it wishes to strengthen bilateral relations. Instead of attempting to undo progress China has made in SSA, the United States must compliment those works and find ways to build capacity across African countries and sustain those new capabilities.
Africans desire economic independence. However, that can only be achieved through aiding them in the building of their own capacities rather than just making them dependent on the US. America must continue to encourage SSA build strong governing institutions. It is imperative to understand that democracy is more conducive to economic development because of the protection and balance of these various institutions. Developing countries need an institutional framework that supports a market economy, which include distinct institutions that foster exchange by lowering transaction costs and encouraging trust as well as those that influence the state and other powerful actors to protect private property and persons rather than expropriate and subjugate them respectively. The United States must do more to differentiate itself from China and become the preferred partner of choice across sub-Saharan Africa. So far, its strategy seems to be too focused on just criticizing China’s efforts and ignoring the legitimate relationship advantage it has built over the last decade. Unfortunately for America, the time has passed where the countries of Africa automatically will choose the US over all other competitors. The longer it takes America to realize this, and adapt to it competitively, the longer it will remain an African also-ran.