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China's Africa Investments Could Benefit All if International Rules Are Obeyed

Gerald Scroop

September 10, 2020

Recently, during a closed-discussion facilitated by the African Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C, U.S. defense officials joined African, European and U.S. scholars to discuss China's involvement in the world's second-largest continent. One takeaway was that China's investments and involvement there can be beneficial and welcome — so long as China plays by established global norms.

"The expectation is that China will be in Africa for a long time — and that's OK," said Chad L. Sbragia, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China. But, Sbragia explained, the U.S. and African partners want China to conduct itself fairly.

"The expectations are that when the United States or China engages in Africa, it's done so in accordance with the practices that we all hold, including African nations, most dearly," Sbragia said. "That's with transparency and an understanding of meeting international standards."

Transparency, Sbragia said, means being open and honest about how and why activities are being conducted and also fully publicizing what's being done.

"There's a lot of issues that revolve around debt, loan transfers, investments that are made, monies that are paid out," he said. "Those should all be done in the most illuminated way possible."

That straightforward approach, Sbragia said, is something the U.S. brings to the table during its negotiations with partners, both in Africa and elsewhere.

"That's part of what I think our greatest contribution is from the United States, is to showcase and help underscore the best practices of the international system," Sbragia said. "We help screen foreign investments, ensure that all those are done with high quality, that they'll support long-term development in support of Africans' interests and don't undermine the sovereignty of those nations or the global system that we are all stakeholders in."

Ronald W. Meyers, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, added that African nations face an array of challenges, so it should not be surprising that they are seeking to diversify their partnerships. "On the security front, they want partnerships to address local concerns over insecurity from violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and foreign intrusion into sovereign spaces, such as in the maritime space, among other priorities," Meyers said. "These are areas where we share common concerns, already work closely together, and have a vested interest in seeing international rules obeyed." The Department's security cooperation efforts are one way we advance mutual interests.

"U.S. Africa Command oversees many of these efforts for the Department under the valuable stewardship of General Stephen Townsend and his team" Meyers noted. The United States offers its partners in Africa quality training and equipment, with an emphasis on support that increases the accountability and resiliency of African defense institutions. U.S. assistance works towards long-term stability — as our training is often multi-year and requires consistent U.S. investment – a reflection of the U.S. enduring commitment to our partners, Meyers explained. 

Meyers stated the U.S. has mutually-beneficial partnerships on the continent today and, in some cases, those relationships date back more than 60 years. "African nations are global security exporters," he said. "They are the biggest contributor to peacekeeping missions in the world. They are trying to do things their way. And they're committing their own personnel to address our shared mutual interests."

African nations play an important role in international politics and in the global economy.  With a booming youth population, rapidly expanding markets, and occupying the biggest United Nations voting bloc, many experts predict that African voices will only grow louder going forward — and the U.S. is ready to listen. Meyers said, "We want to work more with African nations on issues relating to global security. We want to know how we can better work together to jointly see stability not just in Africa. We have a lot to learn from each other."  

With 54 nations on the African continent, there are opportunities to strengthen and grow U.S. security partnerships there, said the acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, James H. Anderson, who's also Sbragia and Meyers' boss. 

 "As China makes potential useful contributions in peacekeeping and anti-piracy, it is important that we look closely to understand which contributions truly advance African interests, and which mask harmful intentions," said Anderson. 

"China has expanded its global military presence as a means of protecting investments and exerting economic leverage over host countries. Notably, China is seeking to build overseas logistics and basing infrastructure beyond the People"s Liberation Army (PLA) base it established in Djibouti in 2017," Anderson elaborated. 

Both Meyers and Sbragia say that African partners have said they don't want to have to choose between the U.S. and China – but they have already made a choice about the world they want to be a part of.

"You hear this from some countries, not just in Africa, which is, don't make us [choose] choice between China or the United States," Sbragia said. "But when they talk about the choices they have already made, it's clear they support the same type of system the U.S. advocates for — a system built on good governance. We all have a stake in the system the way it is, not in the one that the Chinese are trying to impose upon us."

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