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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.

But China's involvement in Africa is much more than economic and political. Of particular concern to Washington are Beijing's weapons sales to African nations, particularly small arms and light weapons. As the Congressional Research Service noted last year, "China views such sales as one means of enhancing its status as an international political power." China's proliferation of small arms and light weapons on the African continent to failed states and regions of conflict runs orthogonal to U.S. interests. As the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes noted in 2006, "Beiing's involvement in sub-Saharan African security issues has expanded to peacekeeping operations, exchange programs, and military deployments." China has established close military relationships with states such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria.

However, with last year's establishment of AFRICOM, President George W. Bush took an important step toward engaging in Africa and countering Chinese influence. The new command is as much of a diplomatic organization as it is military. AFRICOM's unique organizational structure leverages the broad capabilities of the U.S. national security establishment, as it is staffed with personnel from the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as other government agencies. AFRICOM's key mission is to coordinate military-to-military relationships with Africa's 53 countries. Enabling activities include military exercises, information sharing, professional military education programs, public diplomacy and humanitarian projects. AFRICOM will continue to work with partner nations to curb arms smuggling, narcotics and human trafficking and to improve maritime security.

AFRICOM's commander, Army General William "Kip" Ward, is assisted by two deputies: Navy Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller, who serves as the deputy for military operations, and Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, who serves as the deputy for civil-military activities. Like George F. Kennan's original conception of containment, Washington's new strategy is based on much more than military might. The new command's integration of civilian and military leadership underscores this important point. AFRICOM's mission is as much diplomatic as it is military.

Once fully staffed, AFRICOM will have a staff of 1,300 personnel; roughly half of those will be civilians. As of June 2008, about 600 personnel were assigned to AFRICOM, which is currently headquartered at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany. AFRICOM's geographic area of responsibility will include the continent of Africa; the Islands of Cape Verde; Equatorial Guinea; Sao Tome and Principe; and the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros; Madagascar; Mauritius and Seychelles. AFRICOM's area of responsibility was once handled by U.S. European Command and to a lesser extent, U.S. Central Command. In terms of defense appropriations, AFRICOM was budgeted for $75.5 million for fiscal year 2008. The Defense Department requested nearly $400 million in fiscal year 2009 for its newest unified command. In September 2008, appropriators in the House of Representatives voted to provide $266 million for AFRICOM in fiscal year 2009.

In August 2008, U.S. Marine Major General Anthony Jackson of AFRICOM, and Brigadier General Ali Traore of Burkina Faso signed a new bilateral agreement to streamline future military cooperation enabling the two countries to exchange logistics support. In July 2008, AFRICOM and Malian personnel participated in a 19-day joint medical exercise to enhance bilateral response capabilities. As AFRICOM becomes fully staffed, the new command's ability to collaborate more extensively with partner nations will only increase.

The Bush administration has laid the foundation of a new containment strategy for its successor with the establishment of AFRICOM, enabling the United States to leverage more effectively its soft and hard power assets to contain China. The next administration will be forced to confront China's rise and its rapidly expanding influence in Africa. Writing in the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Senator John McCain identified China's rise as a "central challenge" for the next president and cautioned against Beijing's expanding economic and diplomatic relations with African nations Sudan and Zimbabwe. In the coming years, Washington's new containment strategy will likely mature as China's balancing efforts in Africa collide with U.S. interests.

Thomas M. Skypek is a Washington-based defense analyst.