U.S. Plays Catch-Up with China as Beijing’s Influence in Africa Grows

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Written by Uju Okoye

The Trump administration’s obsession with China is now being extended to Africa, where Beijing is exerting a growing level of influence and causing angst among U.S. lawmakers.

The House Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC recently announced that it plans to probe China’s military footprint in Africa, as the Trump administration imposes tariffs in excess of $60 billion on Chinese imports and relations with Beijing bottom out. While members of Congress have long been concerned about Beijing’s creeping influence in Africa, where it has allocated billions of dollars of direct investment, the move to launch a formal probe came after it was discovered that the Chinese have established a military base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea—not far from where the U.S. has its own strategic military installation.

Devin Nunes, Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sounded the alarm in Washington over the Djibouti military base, saying “We believe [the Chinese] are looking at investing in ports and infrastructure around the world, not just for military capabilities but also to control those governments.” Echoing his words, U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said that China’s global spending “keeps me up at night” while appearing before the House Appropriations Committee in March.

Given the pace at which the Chinese government has been expanding its footprint across Africa, the U.S. has some legitimate concerns. Over the past decade, China has invested billions of dollars in construction, infrastructure and energy projects in virtually every country on the continent. Chinese President Xi Jinping says China’s military and political outreach in Africa is part of his country’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to establish lucrative trading routes spanning across Asia, Africa and Europe.

But for U.S. politicians, China’s aggressive inroads throughout Africa are a growing sign of the country’s global ambitions. Mr. Nunes, who is heading up the American probe, has said that Chinese investment in African nations “comes with a price” and has claimed that the Chinese “want your vote in the United Nations” in exchange for monetary investments. Chinese officials dismiss such claims as political bluster.

Regardless of the true motives at play, the real question at this point becomes: Has China now laid so much groundwork in Africa that any momentum built from the investigation by the House Intelligence Committee will be a case of too little, too late?

Not surprisingly, given the circumstance, Djibouti is proving to be a focal point for American anxieties. In a recent study, the Center for Global Development (CGD) identified eight African countries that are particularly vulnerable to debt owed to China, and number one on that list was Djibouti, where the Chinese military set-up shop last summer. The report notes that Djibouti’s public debt in the last two years has increased to 85% from 50% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the majority of it being owed to China.

U.S. officials rightly worry that with such debt comes political leverage over strategically placed yet poor African countries like Djibouti. However, Scott Morris, one of the authors of the CGD report, has warned that Washington needs to be cautious in its criticism of Chinese lending practices throughout Africa. Because many African countries have experienced economic growth from Chinese investments, and view Beijing as savior, “dire warnings from the United States are unlikely to find a receptive audience,” he said.

Furthermore, American businesses and government are disadvantaged vis-à-vis the Chinese as China-based companies can get away with behavior and practices overseas that are forbidden under U.S. anti-corruption laws. It’s no secret that the Chinese government and companies frequently capitalize on rampant fraud in many African nations.

Most recently, with the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, near the U.S. base Camp Lemonnier, the situation in that country appears to have entered a new level of alert—elevating U.S. concern about Beijing from one focused on economics to what is plainly an issue of national security. Indeed, the development comes mere weeks after the Pentagon, in its latest National Defense Strategy identified China, along with Russia, as the “central challenge” facing the U.S. military today.

The military outpost in Djibouti is only the latest in a series of relatively surreptitious efforts by China to expand its defense capabilities in Africa. According to a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, cooperation with Africa on peace and security is now an “explicit part of Beijing’s foreign policy.” In 2015, President Xi committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force, one-fifth of the 40,000 total troops committed by 50 countries. China also pledged $100 million to the African Union standby force and $1 billion to establish the United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund.

The head of U.S. Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser, told lawmakers in Washington that the U.S. is not “naïve” about the implications of having a Chinese base near Camp Lemonnier, including the possibility that China might use its leverage over Djibouti’s government to restrict U.S. access to a strategic port in the country. General Waldhauser has warned of “significant consequences” should China attempt such a restriction of the port.

How this ultimately plays out remains to be seen; yet given the extent to which China has gained sway over strategic assets and governments in Africa, at this point the U.S. is clearly playing catch-up on the continent.