The Trump administration on Thursday announced a sharp refocus of its Africa strategy to counter what it called the "predatory" practices of China and Russia, which are "deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage."
National Security Adviser John Bolton laid out the new strategy in remarks at the Heritage Foundation, saying the U.S. will now choose its African partners more carefully. He took special aim at China, accusing it of wielding "bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing's wishes and demands."
Russia, he alleged, is also "seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings." Russia and China's efforts across the African continent, he said, "stunt" its economic growth.
Critics are skeptical because it has taken nearly two years into Trump's presidency to announce the Africa strategy, and the president is well known for his disparaging remarks about the continent that is home to 1.2 billion people.
Addressing members of Congress on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy was the latest to warn of China's increasing economic, military and political influence in Africa, a continent with some of the world's fastest-growing economies and trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources. Africa's population is set to double by 2050, he said, a "demographic tsunami."
Any renewed U.S. effort to counter China in Africa, however, comes years late. China became the continent's top trading partner nearly a decade ago and has invested billions of dollars in high-profile infrastructure projects.
In response to warnings by the U.S. and others about indebtedness to China, some in Africa have noted sometimes uncomfortable financial terms set out by Western powers in the past. Others praise China's no-strings-attached terms with no insistence on human rights reforms.
Congress passed legislation earlier this year creating a $60 billion international development agency, widely viewed as a response to Chinese overseas development programs.
Under the new "Prosper Africa" strategy, Bolton said, "we will encourage African leaders to choose high-quality, transparent, inclusive, and sustainable foreign investment projects, including those from the United States."
He warned that the U.S. will "reevaluate its support for U.N. peacekeeping missions" as well as aid to countries whose governance it finds troublesome, including South Sudan.
"The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent," Bolton said. He added that "countries that repeatedly vote against the United States in international forums, or take action counter to U.S. interests, should not receive generous American foreign aid."
On the military front, China opened its first overseas military base last year in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, the site of the only permanent U.S. military base on the continent. Bolton warned of a possible shift of the strategic region, along the lucrative and busy Red Sea shipping lane, to China.
As Beijing and others seek to grow their military presence, the U.S. is pulling back. The Pentagon in November said it planned a 10 percent cut in the U.S. Africa Command's total force of 7,200 troops, to be carried out over several years, as its global focus shifts from counterterrorism to perceived threats from Russia and China.
Whatever steps the U.S. takes next, perceptions are an immediate hurdle. The president is known for his reported unflattering remarks: comparing some countries to a filthy toilet, referring to the nonexistent nation of "Nambia" and saying Nigerians — from Africa's biggest economy and a top oil producer — would never return to their "huts" once they saw the U.S.
While Congress has restrained some of his administration's proposed deep cuts in foreign aid, Trump has put forth no signature Africa project and there is no sign he intends to visit.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Institute for African Studies at George Washington University, said the U.S. should avoid trying to be too transactional.
"We are not going to beat China at its own game, which is massive investments and in infrastructure and roads, ports, railroads and vanity projects," Cooke said. "What sets the U.S. apart has been a broader engagement, beyond government, looking at development, civil society and, frankly, serving as something of a moral authority on human rights, democracy and governance issues."
African nations will ultimately benefit from this competition, Judd Devermont, who was the U.S. national intelligence officer for Africa until earlier this year, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
"Some of the current uproar over Chinese investment in Africa is overblown and ill-informed," he warned, saying many of China's infrastructure projects address desperate needs.
While some of China's actions pose unmistakable threats to U.S. military operations and communications platforms, Devermont said, African leaders are not oblivious to risk. "The United States scores few points by talking down to African counterparts about the perils of Chinese engagement," he said.