By Josh Rogin
On his Africa tour this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will argue the United States is a better partner for Africa than is China, which is rapidly expanding its influence and power in Africa. A key test of that proposition will be whether the Trump administration can prevent the government of Djibouti from handing over its main port to Chinese control.
Ever since the Djiboutian government seized control of the Doraleh Container Terminal from Dubai-based DP World last month, reports are it intends to strike a deal with a Chinese-state-controlled firm to run the facility. On Tuesday, Djibouti signed an agreement to expand the port with a Singaporean company that works with China Merchants Port Holdings Co., which already owns a large stake in the facility.
The port is significant not only because it sits next to China’s only overseas military base but also because it is the main access point for American, French, Italian and Japanese bases in Djibouti and is used — because of its strategic location — by parts of the U.S. military that operate in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
The U.S. military is now openly warning that if China gains control of the port, U.S. national security interests will be put at risk. Meanwhile, officials said, Djibouti has been growing closer to, and is increasingly indebted to, the Chinese government.
“When we talk about influence and access, this is a classic example with regards to China, of how we’ve got to proceed and how we’ve got to be careful as we move forward,” said Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, in testimony Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
The Djiboutian leadership told the U.S. ambassador there that Djiboutian authorities have no intention of handing over the port to Chinese control, Waldhauser said, but will operate the port themselves for 60 days and then sign a deal with a company to manage and operate the massive facility.
“We’ll have to wait and see” whether the Chinese are actually given that contract, he said, but if that happens, it could be a big problem. The U.S. military is already taking significant steps to counter the intelligence threat that Chinese military presence in Djibouti poses, but that challenge will multiply if China can control access to the port.
Chinese expansion in Djibouti is only one part of China’s overall Africa strategy, which mixes military, economic and diplomatic incentives to lure African countries away from the West and bolster China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Djibouti now owes China at least $1.2 billion and the debt is piling up, Waldhauser said.
In a speech at George Mason University on Tuesday, Tillerson argued that the United States is a better choice than China for African countries seeking strategic partnership. China’s approach in Africa “encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that more nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth,” Tillerson said.
But Waldhauser testified that the United States hasn’t developed a real strategy for competing with China in Africa and has failed to convince most Africans that a partnership based on American values such as rule of law and open markets is in their best interest. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy correctly defines the threat of China’s global efforts, but there’s no follow-through.
“We are in the initial stages of trying to at least get ‘Africa’ and ‘China’ in the same sentence,” Waldhauser said.
Part of the problem in Djibouti is that the government, led by longtime president Ismail Omar Guelleh, is widely suspected of gross corruption and stands accused of horrendous human rights violations. Guelleh simply might not be interested in cooperation based on Western values. That has led some to argue that the United States would be better off moving its Africa base to another location, such as the relatively stable and democratic republic of Somaliland.
Waldhauser says the Djibouti location is so strategic, we can’t afford to lose it. If that’s so, the United States must come up with a plan to bring Djibouti back into the fold through real incentives for increased cooperation and real consequences if Guelleh does sell out to Beijing.
The Chinese courtship of Africa centers around big infrastructure projects and developing close relationships with corrupt officials. The United States must offer a real alternative, including increased economic, humanitarian and development assistance tied to programs that help Africans help themselves.
China’s Africa strategy is not bound by concerns over good governance, human rights or the economic benefit of regular Africans, only the interests of Beijing and the rulers it co-opts. If Tillerson’s pitch for American partnership is to be more than mere rhetoric, the Trump administration must counter Chinese malign activities and then get in the game.