The United States has a new strategy towards Africa, designed to challenge what it called “predatory” actions by China and Russia across the African continent.
Unveiled by National Security Advisor John Bolton in December, the new US approach is based on trade partnerships and investment with selected countries, most notably Kenya, as well as aid.
That marks a shift away from what the Trump administration called “indiscriminate aid” towards African countries, focusing on what it promoted as a sustainable and targeted approach.
Bolton revealed the strategy in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, saying it “reflects the core tenets of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine”, most notably “his central campaign promise to put the interests of the American people first, both at home and abroad”.
He continued: “We understand that lasting stability, prosperity, independence, and security on the African continent are in the national security interest of the United States.”
The US is in a good position to get started due to African demand for partners, according to Wildu du Plessis, head of Africa for international law firm Baker McKenzie, who said in a statement: “Africa needs strong partnerships in order to address its development challenges so that its full economic potential can be reached. As such, the US is already seen as a major player in infrastructure investment in Africa and its renewed Africa policy of sustainable engagement with allies could be seen as strengthening its role in Africa’s development.”
Bolton was explicit about what the US perceives as the dangers of the Chinese approach in Africa, criticising the amount of debt heaped onto countries such as Zambia and the strategic threat posed by the possible Chinese takeover of the Doraleh port in Djibouti, close to a US military base, something which has been rumoured for some time, due to the ongoing legal dispute between the local government and the port’s Dubai-based owner DP World.
China has been heavily active in the continent, with President Xi Jinping recently promising eight new initiatives worth USD 60 billion, and has been in a development finance battle with the US. Chinese lenders tripled the amount of money they loaned to African energy and infrastructure projects in 2017.
Bolton accused China of using “bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands”, saying that the Belt and Road Initiative – a heavy investment in infrastructure for trade routes – was one of a number of plans “with the ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance”.
He similarly alleged that Russia is “seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings”, pursuing its aims “with little regard for the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance” and continuing “to extract natural resources from the region for its own benefit”.
Bolton was critical of what he described as “the predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for US investment; interfere with U.S. military operations; and pose a significant threat to US national security interests”.
Johannesburg-based banking and finance lawyer du Plessis said: “Increased US interest in Africa is also a counter to Chinese largesse in Africa and other emerging markets as it is reportedly concerned about the security implications of China gaining control of strategic assets as a result of unsustainable borrowing by some developing countries.”
Critics accused the plan of being over-simplistic, particularly when it came to aid and peacekeeping, and some argued that the trade plans were not dissimilar from China and Russia’s own strategies.
Bolton said the new strategy is built on the promotion of fiscal responsibility, fair and reciprocal trade, deregulated economies and support for the private sector, with the aim of moving African countries towards self-reliance and away from dependency, in line with President Trump’s criticism of previous US aid and investment policies.
The new US strategy is based on three areas of interest: advancing US trade and commercial ties, countering terrorism and violence, and the efficient use of aid funds.
Regarding trade and commerce, Bolton said: “We want our economic partners in the region to thrive, prosper, and control their own destinies. In America’s economic dealings, we ask only for reciprocity, never for subservience.”
On the security side, the Trump administration has particularly targeted the threat from “radical Islamic terrorism and violent conflict”, with Bolton saying that “any sound US strategy toward Africa must address this serious threat in a comprehensive way”.
Bolton was critical of past US approaches to aid and the role of the United Nations (UN) on the continent: “The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent, without focus or prioritisation. And, we will no longer support unproductive, unsuccessful, and unaccountable UN peacekeeping missions.”
“We want something more to show for Americans’ hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” he emphasised.
Du Plessis said there is still a long way to go before the country sees results. “The US has now explicitly linked its economic and security interests with its investment and aid in Africa. From an African perspective, real progress will still require a plurality of investors – particularly from the private sector – and movement towards the strong legal and regulatory frameworks required to make projects bankable for the long term. Governments should cautiously monitor developments until the longer-term implications of the new US policy become clearer.”
Despite high hopes at the start of his presidency, Barack Obama’s administration only belatedly took an interest in African policy, leaving critics both in the US and Africa that much of the US role on the continent was left to be determined by private investment.
With huge demand for infrastructure investment to support industrialisation and development across the continent, competition to build ties is fierce. The United Kingdom has pledged GBP 4.5 billion to Africa over the next four years, while Japan is a major investor and India is taking a closer interest in the continent.
Last year, the US established a new development finance institution, partly a merger with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which will double its existing lending limit to USD 60 billion.