Africa is likely to become one of the biggest stories of 2016, and not because of some horrific new disease or harrowing new war. Instead, an unprecedented new dynamic is about to shape the continent. The U.S. and China, major powers with a minor footprint, are both poised for much deeper and more direct involvement in African affairs.
And rather than finding themselves on a crash course, they're facing a more complex — and, for America, unnerving — situation. Thanks to the much different challenges and priorities facing both powers, African intervention is shaping up as a feast for China and a famine for the U.S.
Look to Djibouti for big clues about why. News is quietly breaking that China has sealed a deal to build its first military base in that little country, a former French colony strategically located across from Yemen on the Red Sea, squeezed between Eritrea and Somalia. Confirming years of under-the-radar suspicions, AFRICOM commander Gen. David Rodriguez told The Hill that the "logistics hub" and airfield will let China "extend their reach" into Africa over the course of an initial 10-year contract. Currently, The Hill observed, China can't do much more than stage some naval patrols out of Djibouti ports.
Given China's breakneck expansion into Africa, that's just not good enough. In Africa, China has found not just a market for money but for jobs and land — crucial components of sustained economic growth. As December's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation revealed, the Middle Kingdom wants to ensure privileged access to that kind of future. Although it's hard to unravel the details, Beijing used the Forum to pledge $60 billion in loans and export credits.
No, the Chinese aren't about to lap the U.S. in investment anytime soon, but the financials have taken on an extra edge at a moment when Beijing needs all the good news it can get. "China operates in Africa with greater aplomb and with more nuanced and mutually beneficial relationships than America's corporations and its federal [government]," as one private equity analyst noted at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The USG's most visible diplomatic effort in Africa, Power Africa, is sputtering. American businesses haven't sufficiently picked up the slack."
Which brings us to the very different Africa the U.S. confronts. While China is free to pursue its economic and financial interests with clarity and focus, allowing its military and political agenda to unfold accordingly, Washington finds itself scrambling to keep up with a sour security situation that doesn't play to its strengths. Instead of reaching into Africa's sub-Saharan heartland, where China is racking up lucrative or influential deals, the U.S. will have to stretch itself remarkably thin over the wide and barren expanse of Africa's northern tier.
AFRICOM officials, still headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, recently announced a new strategic outlook that underscores the problem. AFRICOM's top three priorities reach from one end of Northern Africa to the other: "neutralizing" the jihadist al-Shabab group in Somalia to the east, while "containing" enemies like ISIS in Libya and Boko Haram, to the west, in Nigeria and the greater Lake Chad region.
These plans have a whiff of desperation about them. Although al-Shabab's influence has been significantly reduced, nearby Ethiopia just booted the U.S. out of a drone base Washington had hoped to expand in the southerly town of Arba Minch. In other words, as China sets up shop in Djibouti, the U.S. finds itself restricted to that country for its eastern African operations — a precarious toehold in a competitive environment.
In Libya, meanwhile, as ISIS suicide operations spearhead its so-called "liberation" of the country, no plan has emerged for how the U.S. might turn the tide. And in the fight against ISIS affiliate Boko Haram, the U.S. has so far managed to supply Nigeria with two dozen armored vehicles. At a time when the containment approach to ISIS has shown mixed results at best, it is hard to see America's involvement in Africa this year as much more than an under-resourced and reactive improvisation stretched across a vast and hostile landscape.
With the media's eyes fixed on the Mideast, Africa hasn't quite gotten the geostrategic attention it deserves. But this year, it could become a new albatross for the U.S. — and a new lifeline for China.