China and Russia projects in Africa are US security issues, top adviser to Donald Trump says

  • John Bolton, US national security adviser, says Washington must counter ‘predatory practices’ by Beijing and Moscow
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 6:44am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 11:23pm

The United States considers it a foreign policy priority to counter China and Russia as they exert “predatory practices” in growing their economic and political influence in Africa, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

Framing it as a top national security objective, Bolton said the US would build up economic ties with the region to create opportunities for American businesses and protect the independence of African countries.

“Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa,” Bolton said. “They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”

Bolton made the remarks in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, just two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump reached a tentative agreement during the G20 meetings in Buenos Aires, Argentina, not to escalate the two countries’ months-long trade war.

Since then, follow-up trade talks have already been complicated by the arrest in Canada of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, acting on a US request for extradition which has been met with fury from Beijing.

The US contends that Meng engaged in fraud to bypass US sanctions on Iran.

“The predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for US investment, interfere with US military operations, and pose a significant threat to US national security interests,” Bolton said.

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Bolton, a long-time Russia hawk, slammed Russia’s activities in Africa.

“Across the continent, Russia advances its political and economic relationships with little regard for the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance,” he said.

Bolton went on to claim that Moscow had sold arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations, “votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run counter to the best interests of the African people”.

But Bolton reserved his most extensive comments for China’s ambitions.

For example, he said, a port in Djibouti on the Red Sea might give control over to a Chinese state-owned enterprise. “Should this occur, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa – a major artery of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia – would shift in favour of China,” he said.

Africa is one of the main targets of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, a programme of transcontinental infrastructure development and investment which Xi launched in 2013. The plan also intends to improve infrastructure that connects China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

During a trip to Africa in September, Xi pledged US$60 billion in financing for projects on the continent in the form of help, investment and loans.

Xi also said during the trip that belt and road was to promote “common prosperity” in a world that faces “unilateralism and protectionism”, an expression Beijing commonly uses to refer to trade policies of the Trump administration.

A report issued by Citigroup this week pegged China’s total loans, equity investments and aid to Africa at US$60 billion in 2015, up from a third of that amount in 2012, and said Beijing was likely to speed up belt and road-related infrastructure projects on the continent amid trade tensions with the US.

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Speaking in Beijing on Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China’s cooperation with Africa was about helping the continent develop and had been widely praised there.

“When we talk about cooperation with Africa, what we mostly talk about is what does Africa need, like agricultural modernisation,” he told a daily news briefing.

“But the US person, apart from talking about the United States’ own needs, wasn’t thinking about Africa, but about China and Russia. This is very interesting.”

China would continue with its friendly, mutually beneficial cooperation with Africa, no matter what anyone else said, Lu said.

Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international relations expert, said that Bolton’s remarks suggested that competition between China and the US was escalating, and expanding to Africa, where both nations had significant geopolitical interests.

“China has been seeking to diversify its markets in recent years and Africa is one of its best options,” he said. “With its large investments [in the continent], Beijing has been handling its relations with African countries very carefully, with Chinese President Xi Jinping saying at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in September that China would never interfere in the domestic affairs of host nations.”

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Africa was equally important to the US, especially in terms of security in the Atlantic, Pang said.

“After nearly two years in power, the Trump administration has got into its character and it’s clear that competition [between the US and China] is happening on many fronts, one of which is Africa,” Pang said.

“But it’s good news for African countries, now that they are getting attention from both China and the US.”

Bolton’s speech was just the latest sign of the Trump administration’s intensifying focus on international development as a theatre of influence.

In October, the US Congress passed and Trump signed into law the BUILD Act, which creates a new development agency – the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) – seen at least in part as a response to China’s belt and road strategy.

The act set the IDFC’s spending cap at US$60 billion, more than double the US$29 billion funding cap of its predecessor agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). It also gave the agency authority to invest equity in development projects, instead of just providing loans.

Also on Thursday, OPIC, which will be subsumed into the IDFC next year, announced it had approved more than US$1.3 billion in financing and political risk insurance across six projects, including US$430 million in insurance to Egypt to support the restoration, operation, and maintenance of a natural gas pipeline.

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The struggle for influence on the African continent appears to be intensifying.

China is likely to “escalate the loan and shorten the project approval” process to quicken the pace of infrastructure building “so as to diversify trade and economic activities there away from the US,” according to the Citigroup report.

While China has now become a major economic force in a number of African countries with the belt and road plan, it faces huge challenges in the continent, said the report, which pointed out the benefits and drawbacks of the projects.

“Rising Chinese trade, investment and lending to Africa in the past 15 years is helping change the continent, often for the better, but debt levels need to be addressed,” the report said.

Citigroup also said there were lingering concerns about whether China would adopt a harder line over repayment of its lending to Africa, including obtaining various natural resources for outstanding debt repayment.

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou and Reuters