Recently, President Obama announced that approximately 100 American troops have been stationed in Niger, a neighbour to Mali in West Africa, to set up a new drone base for Predator surveillance. Mali is currently involved in a civil war, which has attracted foreign intervention. In January, France invaded Mali to assist the government in its quest to repel the Islamist rebels who disrupted recent elections. Accordingly, the U.S. supported the invasion and recent American involvement has led some to ask: Is this the beginning of a foreign policy shift in U.S. interests? With the U.S. out of Iraq and in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan some believe that Africa will now become a primary focus of U.S. global relations. Finally, with China leading the way in foreign investment in the region, some have begun to speculate that the U.S. is attempting to compete in the region thus creating a “new scramble for Africa.”
Over the last two decades, China has substantially increased its presence in the continent, and in 2009 China became Africa’s largest trading partner. According to Graphic Online, Chinese foreign investment in the region reached $12 billion dollars in 2011, surpassing U.S. investment in the continent. Previously, China-Africa trade grew to an astonishing $115 billion dollars in 2010, with more than half of trade deals involving oil. It’s been estimated that the Chinese have invested another $101 billion in the continent since 2010 and it’s estimated that by the end of year, China will have invested and traded over $200 billion with the continent. With the U.S. government struggling to monetarily compete with China in the region, the U.S. has turned to its military power spread its influence.
The U.S. presence in Mali is not the first time that the U.S. has used it military might to strengthen its presence in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has had influence in the Somali region, Senegal, South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia, Yemen, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya (“unofficially”) and now Mali. Just a few days ago, the New York Times released an article suggesting that the US would share its drone surveillance with the Algerian government “to engage in operations both inside Algeria and possible, in a limited way, across its borders.” Despite the recent controversy surrounding the legality and use of drones, the Obama administration is looking to further expand its drone program in Africa.
In addition to increasing its aerial surveillance capabilities the U.S. military is also expanding its ground presence in the region. In an article written by Chris Marsden and released by Global Research in January, Marsden writes, “This year the U.S. is to station a brigade of at least 3,000 troops permanently in Africa. They will join at least 2,000 and possibly 5,000 already stationed there on a less formal and sometimes clandestine basis. America is scheduled to hold more than 100 military exercises in 35 countries.” Although the numbers appear small, they are steadily swelling, and one can’t help but wonder if Obama will make Africa a foreign policy priority in his second term.
This increasing US military presence in the region poses many questions: How will this affect China-US relations in the region? Is the US switching its foreign policy priorities to Africa (It can’t be ignored that the Obama administration is also beefing up its military presence in East Asia, particularly in Taiwan, which is acting as a buffer to potential Chinese expansion in the area)? How much of a factor are Africa’s vast natural resources and petroleum deposits? More importantly, how will the affect the various African states and their citizens? If this is a “new scramble for Africa” such as many authors have suggested, the cause and effects might not be that different from the Cold War scramble decades ago.
Both China and the U.S. are vying for influence on the continent, China with its foreign investments, the U.S. with its ever-growing military presence, and both want to take advantage of the abundant natural resources which are being under-utilized. China recognizes that it can’t compete with the strength and capabilities of the U.S. military, but it also doesn’t share the same colonial history as some of its Western counterparts; this could give China a slight edge in dealing with African nations and groups such as the African Union. However, with the U.S. increasing its oil dependency on Africa (Angola and Nigeria are now among the top-ten sources of U.S. oil imports), you can be sure that the competition for influence in the region has only just begun.
A contributing writer for Y-Axis Magazine, Ty Hooper has a Bachelor of Arts in history and English from Carleton University, and a Master of Arts in history from the University of Waterloo. His blog is http://tyhooperw.wordpress.com/.