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Can the US and China Coexist in Africa?

A rivalry between the two powers can only bring trouble for Africans.

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 5:10 PM EDT
US Marines and Ghananian military during a joint training exercise in Senegal, June 2014.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Juba, South Sudan—Is this country the first hot battlefield in a new cold war? Is the conflict tearing this new nation apart actually a proxy fight between the world's two top economic and military powers? That's the way South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth tells it. After "midwifing" South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the US has watched China emerge as the major beneficiary of South Sudan's oil reserves. As a result, Makuei claims, the US and other Western powers have backed former vice president Riek Machar and his rebel forces in an effort to overthrow the country's president, Salva Kiir. China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game. Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushes both sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war. It is sending peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir's forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons.

While experts dismiss Makuei's scenario—"farfetched" is how one analyst puts it—there are average South Sudanese who also believe that Washington supports the rebels. The US certainly did press Kiir's government to make concessions, as his supporters are quick to remind anyone willing to listen, pushing it to release senior political figures detained as coup plotters shortly after fighting broke out in late 2013.  America, they say, cared more about a handful of elites sitting in jail than all the South Sudanese suffering in a civil war that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, resulted in mass rapes, displaced more than 1.5 million people (around half of them children), and pushed the country to the very brink of famine. Opponents of Kiir are, however, quick to mention the significant quantities of Chinese weaponry flooding into the country. They ask why the United States hasn't put pressure on a president they no longer see as legitimate.


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While few outside South Sudan would ascribe to Makuei's notion of a direct East-West proxy war here, his conspiracy theory should, at least, serve as a reminder that US and Chinese interests are at play in this war-torn nation and across Africa as a whole—and that Africans are taking note. Almost anywhere you look on the continent, you can now find evidence of both the American and the Chinese presence, although they take quite different forms. The Chinese are pursuing a ruthlessly pragmatic economic power-projection strategy with an emphasis on targeted multilateral interventions in African conflicts.  US policy, in contrast, appears both more muddled and more military-centric, with a heavy focus on counterterrorism efforts meant to bolster amorphous strategic interests. 

For the last decade, China has used "soft power"—aid, trade, and infrastructure projects—to make major inroads on the continent. In the process, it has set itself up as the dominant foreign player here. The US, on the other hand, increasingly confronts Africa as a "battlefield" or "battleground" or "war" in the words of the men running its operations. In recent years, there has been a substantial surge in US military activities of every sort, including the setting up of military outposts and both direct and proxy interventions. These two approaches have produced starkly contrasting results for the powers involved and the rising nations of the continent. Which one triumphs may have profound implications for all parties in the years ahead. The differences are, perhaps, nowhere as stark as in the world's newest nation, South Sudan.

A Midwife's Tale

Starting in the 1980s, the efforts of an eclectic, bipartisan collection of American supporters—Washington activists, evangelical Christians, influential Congressional representatives, celebrities, a rising State Department star, a presidential administration focused on regime change and nation-building, and another that picked up the mantle—helped bring South Sudan into existence. "Midwife" was the word then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry chose to describe the process.

In recent years, no country in Africa has received as much Congressional attention. And on July 9, 2011, South Sudan's Independence Day, President Barack Obama released a stirring statement. "I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come. As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights."

As the new nation broke away from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, the US poured in billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance. It also invested heavily in governmental institutions, and built infrastructure (constructing or repairing roads and bridges). It sent military instructors to train the country's armed forces and advisors to mentor government officials. It helped to beef up the education sector, worked to facilitate economic development and American investment, and opened the US market to duty-free South Sudanese imports.

The new nation, it was hoped, would bolster US national security interests by injecting a heavy dose of democracy into the heart of Africa, while promoting political stability and good governance. Specifically, it was to serve as a democratic bulwark against Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir, who had once harbored Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in that country's Darfur region.

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan's oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. In taking those resources out of Bashir's hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa. It was even expected to serve Washington's military aims—and soon, the US began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord's Resistance Army.

That was the dream, at least. But like Washington's regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong. Today, South Sudan's armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other. The country's political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.

The China Syndrome

During the years when America was helping bring South Sudan into existence, another world power also took an interest in the country—and a very different tack when it came to its development. After having invested a reported $20 billion in Sudan—a country long on the US sanctions blacklist—China watched as the new nation of South Sudan claimed about 75% of its oil fields. In 2012, newly inaugurated South Sudanese President Salva Kiir traveled to China where he sipped champagne with then-President Hu Jintao and reportedly secured a pledge of $8 billion to build up his country's infrastructure and support its oil sector. (A top Chinese envoy later dismissed reports of such a sum, but hinted that China was willing to make even greater investments in the country if it achieved a lasting peace with its northern neighbor.)

Two years later, the China National Petroleum Corporation, with a 40% stake, is now the largest shareholder in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the top oil consortium in South Sudan. It also leads another important consortium, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company. During the first 10 months of 2013, China imported nearly 14 million barrels of oil from South Sudan. That adds up to about 77% of the country's crude oil output and twice as much as China imports from energy-rich Nigeria. While South Sudanese oil accounts for only about 5% of China's total petroleum imports, the country has nonetheless provided Beijing with a new African partner. This was especially useful as a US and NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 created chaotic conditions, causing China to suffer heavy losses ($20 billion according to Chinese sources) in various energy and other projects in that country.

"At the end of the day, China's main interest is stability so that they can function on a commercial basis. And to achieve that stability they've had to get more involved on the political side," says Cameron Hudson, director for African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House from 2005 to 2009. "They have a very large presence in Juba and are doing a lot of business beyond the oil sector."

In fact, just days before South Sudan plunged into civil war late last year, the deep-pocketed Export-Import Bank of China was reportedly preparing to offer the country $2 billion in loans and credit to build six key roads—including a 1,500-mile highway to link the capital, Juba, with Sudan's main port—crucial bridges across the Nile River, schools and hospitals in every county, a hydropower plant, a government conference center, and a staple of Chinese construction schemes in Africa, a stadium.

Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised to expand cooperation with South Sudan in trade, agriculture, construction of infrastructure, and energy. Meanwhile, a separate $158 million deal to repair and expand the airport in Juba, financed by China's Export-Import Bank and carried out by a Chinese firm, was announced. In addition, China has just shipped nearly $40 million in arms—millions of rounds of ammunition, thousands of automatic rifles and grenade launchers, and hundreds of machine guns and pistols—to Salva Kiir's armed forces.

Continental Competition

China's interest in South Sudan is indicative of its relations with the continent as a whole. Beijing has long looked to Africa for diplomatic cooperation in the international arena and, with the continent accounting for more than 25% of the votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations, relied on it for political support. More recently, economics has become the paramount factor in the growing relationship between the rising Asian power and the continent.

Hungry for energy reserves, minerals, and other raw materials to fuel its domestic growth, China's Export-Import Bank and other state-controlled entities regularly offer financing for railroads, highways, and other major infrastructure projects, often tied to the use of Chinese companies and workers. In exchange, China expects long-term supplies of needed natural resources. Such relationships have exploded in the new century with its African trade jumping from $10 billion to an estimated $200 billion, which far exceeds that of the United States or any European country. It has now been Africa's largest trading partner for the last five years and boasts of having struck $400 billion worth of deals in African construction projects which have already yielded almost 1,400 miles of railroad track and nearly 2,200 miles of highways.

Resources traded for infrastructure are, however, just one facet of China's expanding economic relationship with Africa. Looking down the road, Beijing increasingly sees the continent as a market for its manufacturing products. While the West ages and sinks deeper into debt, Africa is getting younger and growing at an exponential pace. Its population is, according to demographers, poised to double by the middle of the century, jumping to as many as 3.5 billion—larger than China and India combined—with working-age people far outnumbering the elderly and children.

With its ability to produce goods at low prices, China is betting on being a major supplier of a growing African market when it comes to food, clothes, appliances, and other consumer goods. As Howard French, author of China's Second Continent notes, "a variety of economic indicators show that the fortunes of large numbers of Africans are improving dramatically and will likely continue to do so over the next decade or two, only faster." According to the International Monetary Fund, 10 of the 20 economies projected to grow fastest from 2013-2017 are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the World Bank attributed 60% of Africa's economic growth to consumer spending. Beijing may even fuel this rise further by relocating low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs to that continent as it develops more skilled manufacturing and high-tech industries at home.

One Chinese export integral to Beijing's dealings with Africa has, however, largely escaped notice. In the space of a decade, as French points out, one million or more Chinese have emigrated to Africa, buying up land, establishing businesses, plying just about every conceivable trade from medicine to farming to prostitution. These expats are altering the fundamentals of cultural and economic exchange across the continent and creating something wholly new. "For all of China's denials that its overseas ambitions could be compared to those of Europeans or Americans," writes French, "…what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire."

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