US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s unveiling of President Donald Trump’s Africa strategy is a direct attempt to counter China and Russia’s expanding influence across the continent.
Both are accused of predatory economics, from the theft of intellectual property to stealing mineral wealth and labor through debt. Bolton said America’s vision for the region was “one of independence, self-reliance, and growth — not dependency, domination, and debt.”
Chinese and Russian behavior stunts economic growth in Africa and threatens the financial independence of African nations while inhibiting opportunities for US investment. More importantly, predatory economics can interfere with US military operations and ultimately pose a significant threat to US national security interests.
Bolton said the two nations were deepening their reach and investments in the region in the hopes of gaining a “competitive advantage” over the US. He especially criticized China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the trillion-dollar program of infrastructure development and investments across Asia, Europe, and Africa.
To be sure, both Russia and China are extraordinarily active in Africa. Russia has signed agreements to establish economic zones in Eritrea, explore opportunities in accessing minerals across southern Africa, and enhance military and technical cooperation with the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Zimbabwe, and others. Murky Russian private military companies are operating in several African countries advising leaders and protecting economic assets.
China has provided billions of dollars in loans, grants, and development financing to many of Africa’s 55 nations. Beijing financed large-scale infrastructural projects such as railways in Kenya, factories in Lesotho and Namibia, and free trade zones. China also helped Ethiopia launch its first satellite, has opened up a key military base in Djibouti and has sent peacekeepers to South Sudan, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Beijing provides training and education opportunities for thousands of Africa’s leaders, bureaucrats, students, and business people.
Both Russia and China make African security more fragile from the US point of view; Washington sees the BRICS as a weak grouping unable to rally African countries to a new economic order simply because the metrics do not add up for success. Instead, a trail of broken countries will continue.
Specifically, the Trump administration’s approach appears to lean heavily on the idea that the US needs to advance trade and commercial ties with African nations now by exposing the predatory practices pursued by Russia and China. With two peer competitors seemingly teaming up in Africa, the game is now about great powers and their financial and political influence. Moscow and Beijing are targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the US. With the East ascendant over the declining West, Russia and China see opportunity.
The US wants African governments to act as strategic partners and to improve governance and transparent business practices that can help those nations address security threats, including terrorism and militant violence. Such an offer may be tough for some African countries to swallow given local politics, corruption and ineffective legal systems or hybrid courts. For some countries, the Chinese presence has been ongoing for several decades and with a resurgent Russia in the eyes of the Middle East and Africa, Moscow is pushing assertively into several corners of the continent, reawaking old ties and developing new connections. Together, Russia and China make a formidable team who seek an alternative path to sustainable development.
Bolton’s policy announcement followed a long-awaited plan to reduce AFRICOM’s number of US troops conducting counterterrorism missions in Africa over the next three years. This comes despite senior US military commanders warning last year that the terror threat in many African nations was growing, particularly in West Africa. Importantly, the planned reductions are part of a broader global effort intended to align the US military’s global posture with the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which focuses more on “near-peer” competitors such as Russia and China instead of counterterrorism missions.
Overall, this shift in policy means the US will be reducing counter-terrorism efforts in order to shift to plan and train missions for confrontation with near-peer competitors in third locations. African countries are expected to be transparent and self-sufficient and not beholden to another country in debt or servitude. That the Trump administration is dealing so aggressively with Russia and China is likely to be read in both Moscow and Beijing as a challenge. Africa as a theater of hybrid warfare is now here, with an economic collision between the three powers while extremists continue to pop up in new corners of the continent.