Whether its tariffs and trade wars, denuclearisation summits or Twitter threats against world leaders, US president Donald Trump has made plenty of noise on the world stage. But as the president adds to his foreign policy highlight reel—most recently with a NATO-bashing European tour and controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin—there’s one corner of the world that finds itself largely beyond his administration’s consideration: Africa.
This relative inattention is not unprecedented. Despite fleeting moments of supreme focus, the continent of Africa—particularly south of the Sahara—has largely been peripheral to post-Cold War US foreign policy.
But peripheral does not mean ignored.
Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invested considerable energy into US-African relations, the former prioritising aid and trade, and the latter counter-terrorism post-9/11. President Barack Obama further intensified this security-focused engagement, escalating airstrikes in Somalia against the militant group al-Shabaab, and deployments of military advisors to Uganda, Niger, Cameroon and Somalia.
However, Bush and Obama also invested in economic and developmental initiatives: Bush most notably in his US$15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and Obama in programs such as the US$7 billion Power Africa initiative, and Young African Leaders Initiative. These tangible social and economic initiatives represent a key difference between Trump and his predecessors.
The new administration’s focus is heavily tilted toward the military.
In a press conference following the NATO summit in July, a Tunisian journalist expressed thanks to President Trump for US counterterrorism efforts in North Africa. In response, Trump declared his broad desire for peace on the continent, stressing that ‘Africa, as you know, is on our very strong list.’ He was clear on how he intended to fix the ‘vicious and violent’ problems facing Africa a few moments later:
‘We’re building up a tremendous military because I really believe through strength, you get peace.’
Under Trump, the militarisation of the US-Africa relationship has accelerated. In the first year of his presidency, Trump controversially green-lit the sale of US$593 million-worth of high-tech military aircraft to Nigeria (a deal the Obama administration had put on hold due to human rights concerns), and US airstrikes in Somalia more than doubled. In addition, troop deployments to Djibouti, Somalia and Niger have all increased.
But whereas his predecessors married security with diplomatic, humanitarian and economic engagement, Trump has shown little inclination to pursue a multifaceted Africa policy. Despite allocating US$533 million in famine relief to several East and Central African nations earlier this year, the Trump administration’s 2018 and 2019 budget proposals eyed cuts of around 30 per cent to the State Department and USAID—cuts that, if congressionally approved, would have slashed diplomatic and developmental spending on the continent.
Taken on top of numerous unfilled US Ambassadorial positions across Africa, these intended cuts signal a turn toward more one-dimensional, militarised engagement.
Moreover, as infamously crystallised in the president’s description of various African nations as ‘shithole countries’, the rhetorical and symbolic compliment to this approach has been defined by disdain and neglect.
In March 2018, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a tour of five African states. Prior to this, he enunciated several security-focused priorities that led some in think tank land to hope that a cohesive Africa policy was taking form. But after a somewhat tokenistic tour, Tillerson cut his trip short upon learning of his impending dismissal as Secretary of State. After returning to the US he was officially shown the door, and so too seems to have been the administration’s interest in Africa.
A comprehensive Africa policy still waits to be enunciated, and only in late July was a permanent Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs finally confirmed—a year and a half into Trump’s presidency.
Absorbed by issues in Asia, Europe and North America, the Trump administration seems half-asleep on a continent that accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s landmass and 16 per cent of its population. This lends yet more credence to arguments that the administration is abdicating American global leadership. But specifically, Trump’s neglect of Africa is consequential because of the attention that China is focusing on the continent.
China has been Africa’s largest trading partner for almost a decade. Moving forward, African nations are key to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which centres on developing a Sino-centric global infrastructure network.
However, where past engagement has prioritised infrastructure investment and resource extraction, Chinese leaders are also increasingly attending to military and political relations with Africa.
After surpassing the US in arms sales to Africa, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. It conducts military training exercises with various African nations, and in June 2018 hosted the inaugural China-Africa Defense and Security Forum in Beijing, attended by military leaders from 50 African states.
In September, Beijing will host the diplomatic complement to this summit, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. And finally, just last month Xi concluded a tour of Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Mauritius – his fourth official visit to Africa, and the 82nd visit from a senior Chinese leader in the last decade.
Where the Trump administration’s approach to Africa seems half-hearted and hyper-militarised, the Xi regime’s is energised and increasingly multifaceted.
Certainly, Africa is not a treasure to be fought over in some neo-imperialist geopolitical contest. But if, as recent policy announcements suggest, the Trump administration seeks to rival Chinese influence around the globe, it’s off to a rocky start in Africa.
Andrew Herrmann is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.