China vs US - superpower standoff in Africa

By Peter Huck

Demographics alone — its 1.1b people will double by 2050 — means African continent can’t be ignored

Joint AU-UN special representative Rodolphe Adada greets Chinese engineering unit members in Nyala. Photo / AP
Joint AU-UN special representative Rodolphe Adada greets Chinese engineering unit members in Nyala. Photo / AP

As Muammar Gaddafi's regime began to unravel in 2011, amid chaotic fighting between Libya's military and rebels, foreign nations rushed to withdraw their citizens. The rescued included about 35,000 Chinese workers in an evacuation supported by a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy frigate, the Xu Zhou, Beijing's first military deployment to Africa.

And when Libya's revolution spilled over to Mali, Beijing sent a PLA unit to join United Nations peacekeepers, the first appearance of Chinese troops on the continent.

More recently, Beijing has committed an 850-strong infantry battalion to South Sudan.

China has a vested interest: protecting South Sudan's huge oil reserves. Beijing needs energy for its economic growth and wants to safeguard Chinese workers, along with billions of dollars in investments.

Indeed, most Chinese UN deployments - mainly doctors and engineers - have been to Africa, to Liberia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Western Sahara.

There have also been arms shipments, most notoriously in 2008 when a Chinese vessel carrying military equipment to Zimbabwe was denied entry to a South African port amid criticism Beijing's hunger for raw materials trumped human rights. But Beijing prefers soft power, building railways, roads, ports, telecommunications and other infrastructure in quid pro quo deals for raw materials.

Trade, facilitated by Beijing's deep public pockets, reciprocal visits by dignitaries, including Xi Jinping, and the estimated one million Chinese citizens who have made Africa home since 2001, soared to $200 billion last year, making China the continent's biggest trading partner.

All of which has set off alarm bells in some Western quarters, with dark warnings about a new Scramble for Africa. Critics fret the United States - focused on the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, the European Union and Russia - has made a strategic mistake.

They worry that Beijing has exploited a US foreign policy vacuum, grabbing pole position on a dynamic continent the Economist predicts will host seven out of 10 of the world's fastest growing economies this decade.

This month the Obama Administration signalled it was belatedly taking a greater interest in Africa - the world's second-largest and second most-populous continent - by convening the first US-African Leaders Summit in Washington, a three-day talkfest that drew 48 African leaders.

"I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world - partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children," President Barack Obama told his guests, stressing the need to invest in the next generation and for stronger relations between the US and Africa.

"That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect."

Yet despite Obama Administration hype that the summit was a potential game changer, any partnership must be grounded in new thinking.

American photographer Peter Beard once remarked that Africa has front-row seats at the last picture show. He was talking about the end of big game and environmental collapse, but this apocalyptic tone feeds stereotypes that Africa is a chaotic, dangerous place, a theme fuelled by the Ebola outbreak, tribalism, terrorism, official corruption, poor governance and human rights abuses.

Bad news from Africa is a stumbling block for US business investment and the Washington summit was directed as much at Obama's domestic audience as it was at Africans, says John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I think part of it [the summit] was to raise Africa's profile within the US. To make American companies aware of what some of the opportunities might be," Campbell says. "American companies are often quite timid about pursuing business overseas, outside of areas where traditionally they have done business."

Obama took the high ground at the summit, suggesting the US valued the potential of Africa's people rather than their raw materials, a dig at China. But the US has also exploited raw materials, chiefly oil exports. The US-African trade, about $85 billion in 2013, is overwhelmingly one-sided. America buys more than it sells. Even oil imports from Nigeria are down, from 1 million to 50,000 barrels a day, as the US taps domestic supplies.

Unlike China, US firms face legal obstacles, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Nonetheless, according to the Brookings Institute, US investment dwarfs that from China. Demographics alone - Africa's 1.1 billion people will double by 2050 - means the continent can't be ignored.

Whether market-driven business models, seen as promoting inequality by critics in the West, are desirable in Africa remains contentious. But few dispute the need to lift millions from poverty and steer them towards profitable employment, rather than into the hands of Islamist groups.

It is a tension that fuses the two main 21st century African narratives: in one the continent is an emerging powerhouse, in the other it is stalked by jihadis.

The latter threat has seen a steady increase in US military activity. According to TomDispatch.com this averaged over one mission a day in 2013, a 217 per cent increase in operations since 2008.

The website says US Africa Command has "maintained a veil of secrecy about much of the command's activities and mission locations, consistently downplaying the size, scale and scope of its efforts."

So does this indicate a stealth deployment and is China seen as a rival?

Well, yes and no. Campbell says that India and South Korea are also emerging players on the continent, an involvement that undercuts any Cold War paradigm of US-Sino rivalry.

Far from trying to contain China, Campbell says the US is trying to encourage responsible behaviour that is "commensurate with their growing economic interest".

Campbell says the Pentagon footprint, like economic activity, in Africa is "extremely small". He cites a military base in French-controlled Djibouti, a contingent of special forces deployed in Uganda against the Lord's Resistance Army and the use of surveillance drones to search for the abducted Nigeria schoolgirls .

But TomDispatch.com says US forces have been used in airstrikes against militants, night raids to capture terror suspects, assistance to French and African troops in proxy wars and in evacuations.

The focus seems directed towards terrorists and pirates, able to recruit from the poor and disenfranchised, not at China.

But there is a sense the Pentagon could ramp up its forces if needed, fuelling concerns of mission creep and blowback, as fallout from the Arab Spring roils the Sahel and causes unease further afield.

Last week, the US approved $10 million to help France fight terrorists in Mali, Niger and Chad, as fears grow of synergy between Islamic radicals in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Nigeria. It remains to be seen if the US will benefit economically from such heavy lifting and catch up with China.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 24 Nov 2014 09:26:53 Processing Time: 580ms