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The Great Game in Africa

Washington's emerging containment strategy.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 2008 • By THOMAS M. SKYPEK
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The African continent is quickly becoming a proxy battleground for Washington and Beijing, as the latter's appetite for emerging markets and raw materials grows. In July 2008, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "China's full court press to establish influence and connections in Africa and Latin America may be seismic in its future implications for the United States." China's burgeoning influence in Africa is now squarely on the Pentagon's radar screen. In October 2007, the United States affirmed its commitment to the continent by announcing the establishment of a new combatant command: Africa Command, known by its acronym in defense circles as AFRICOM. While Washington policymakers deny that Beijing's behavior is the rationale for its establishment, it appears as though AFRICOM marks the beginning of a new containment strategy aimed at curtailing Chinese power and influence in Africa. Since October 2007, AFRICOM was operating under the auspices of U.S. European Command, but last week, on October 1, AFRICOM officially became the Defense Department's tenth unified combatant command.

China may pose a number of problems for U.S. policymakers as it becomes more and more involved-both economically and diplomatically-on the continent. From a military perspective, this would significantly complicate U.S. counterterrorism operations, as countries loyal to Beijing place new restrictions on the United States. Additionally, China's proliferation of small arms and light weapons to hostile state and non-state actors will only make the world more dangerous. Politically, this could give China increased influence in venues like the United Nations Security Council, particularly among the non-permanent members of the Council. Finally, the economic competition between the U.S. and China for the continent's critical resources may decidedly advantage Beijing.

Over the last decade, China has been steadily increasing its diplomatic, military and economic involvement on the African continent. The dramatic expansion of Sino-African trade in recent years is the clearest manifestation of this trend. As Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations reported in June 2008, "From 2002 to 2003, trade between China and Africa doubled to $18.5 billion; by 2007, it had reached $73 billion." In 2005, Jean-Christophe Servant of Le Monde Diplomatique reported that trade between China and the nations of Africa increased by 700 percent during the 1990s. Africa possesses both the raw materials and new markets Beijing needs to continue its impressive economic growth. China's economic interest in Africa extends far beyond its prodigious demand for energy. In fact, China has begun to penetrate all sectors of the African economy. In July 2008, Tom Burgis reported in the Financial Times that "China is readying to move into Africa on a scale that far outstrips its acquisitions on the continent to date...." According to Burgis, bankers from China and Africa's largest banks are examining acquisition opportunities in a number of sectors including oil and gas, telecom, base metals, and power. China's balancing act on the African continent has not gone unnoticed. In fact, some of Beijing's neighbors have taken a newfound interest in Africa themselves. In June 2008, Hany Besada writing in the International Herald Tribune chronicled new investments by both Japan and India in Africa. With regard to India, Besada explained, "These efforts reflect New Delhi's eagerness, not only to deepen its engagement and raise its profile with the resource-endowed continent, but, more importantly, to catch up with China." As the regional balance in Asia continues to evolve, it is likely that Japan and India will undertake peaceful efforts to check China's growth whenever possible.

The perennial issue of Taiwan is especially important to understanding China's interest in Africa. Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan remains an immensely sensitive issue for the Beijing leadership. Today, just twenty-three countries maintain official diplomatic relations with Taipei. Four of those countries are in Africa: Burkina Faso, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland. Since 1994, nine African countries have switched their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Four of those countries have switched within the last five years, including Malawi in January 2008. In a 2005 essay examining China's growing involvement in the Western Hemisphere, Cynthia Watson, a professor at the Naval War College noted that there were two primary drivers for Beijing's increased engagement in Latin America: resources and diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. It appears as though the same is true for China's interest in Africa.