Africa is a strategic battleground where countering China and Russia’s growing influence will be the top U.S. priority, National Security Adviser John Bolton said Thursday as he unveiled the Trump administration’s new approach on the continent.
“America’s vision for the region is one of independence, self-reliance and growth—not dependency, domination and debt,” Bolton said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.
Bolton said the new strategy in Africa focuses on furthering American interests and priorities in the continent by encouraging economic opportunities with partner nations, the effective use of U.S. aid and peacekeeping efforts, and countering extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida by supporting regional government efforts to improve security and cooperation.
Echoing the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy in naming China and Russia as “great power competitors,” Bolton said these countries are focusing on Africa to expand their influence on the continent politically and financially as a way to “gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”
One place competition in Africa is now unfolding in the small but strategic country of Djibouti, where Beijing opened its first overseas military base in 2017. For the U.S. military, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti has long been the anchor for missions around the volatile Horn of Africa and a launching pad into neighboring Somalia.
The United States has a lease to continue operating out of Camp Lemonnier until 2034, with the option for a 10-year extension. But China’s growing military presence, joined with an economic strategy that involves hefty local infrastructure investments and port deals, has been a source of U.S. military concerns.
One concern is the possibility of Djibouti handing over control of the Doraleh Container Terminal that sits on the Red Sea to Chinese state-owned companies. If it happens, the Horn of Africa’s maritime trade region would lean in favor of China, Bolton said.
“And, our U.S. military personnel at Camp Lemonnier could face even further challenges in their efforts to protect the American people,” he said.
Earlier this year, U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. Thomas Waldhauser warned if China strikes a deal to control Djibouti’s ports that it could hinder the ability of the United States to operate. He also said he expects more Chinese military posts in Africa.
“Djibouti happens to be the first. There will be more,” Waldhauser said.
While much of the focus of the United States in Africa has centered recently on countering violent extremism and coordinating with local forces in impoverished countries such as Chad and Niger, Beijing has invested billions to finance mining ventures, telecommunication projects, port and infrastructure deals.
Bolton said these Chinese projects are “riddled with corruption” and don’t meet the same standards as American development projects.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” he said.
China is Africa’s largest trade partner and that largesse is on display all over the continent in places such as the mineral rich Democratic Republic of Congo, where massive billboards advertise China’s role in funding road projects.
Russia also has become more active in Africa, but on a much smaller scale. In oil-rich Libya, Moscow has courted Libyan strongman Kalifa Haftar, a high-powered militia leader and key political and military rival to the country’s fragile, Western-backed central government in Tripoli.
Moscow also has sought to deepen military ties in countries such as the Central African Republic and others interested in acquiring arms. But those ties to Russia do not come attached to human rights issues as when dealing with the United States.
“In short, the predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment, interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests,” Bolton said.
As part of the new Africa strategy, they are pursuing an initiative called “Prosper Africa,” which will focus on using American tax dollars in Africa to support economic opportunities that will “support U.S. investment across the continent, grow Africa’s middle class, and improve the overall business climate in the region,” Bolton said.
They will also re-evaluate supporting United Nations peacekeeping missions to make certain the United States is only supporting “effective and efficient operations” and will “terminate missions that are unable to meet their own mandate or facilitate lasting peace.”
To counter the threat of terrorism, the strategy will focus on supporting key African governments to work together to “provide effective and sustainable security and law enforcement services to their citizens.”
“Our goal is for the nations of the region to take ownership over peace and security in their own neighborhood,” Bolton said.
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