From energy wars to water wars, the 21st century will be determined by a fierce battle for the world’s remaining natural resources. The chessboard is global. The stakes are tremendous. Most battles will be invisible. All will be crucial.
In resource-rich Africa, a complex subplot of the New Great Game in Eurasia is already in effect. It’s all about three major intertwined developments:
1) The coming of age of the African Union (AU) in the early 2000s.
2) China’s investment offencive in Africa throughout the 2000s.
3) The onset of the Pentagon’s African Command (Africom) in 2007.
Beijing clearly sees that the Anglo-French-American bombing of Libya – apart from its myriad geopolitical implications – has risked billions of dollars in Chinese investments, not to mention forcing the (smooth) evacuation of more than 35,000 Chinese working across the country.
And crucially, depending on the outcome – as in renegotiated energy contracts by a pliable, pro-Western government – it may also seriously jeopardise Chinese oil imports (3 per cent of total Chinese imports in 2010).
No wonder the China Military, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) newspaper, as well as sectors in academia, are now openly arguing that China needs to drop Deng Xiaoping’s “low-profile” policy and bet on a sprawling armed forces to defend its strategic interests worldwide (these assets already total over $1.2 trillion).
Now compare it with a close examination of Africom’s strategy, which reveals as the proverbial hidden agenda the energy angle and a determined push to isolate China from northern Africa.
One report titled “China’s New Security Strategy in Africa” actually betrays the Pentagon’s fear of the PLA eventually sending troops to Africa to protect Chinese interests.
It won’t happen in Libya. It’s not about to happen in Sudan. But further on down the road, all bets are off.
Meddle is our middle name
The Pentagon has in fact been meddling in Africa’s affairs for more than half a century. According to a 2010 US Congressional Research Service study, this happened no less than 46 times before the current Libya civil war.
Among other exploits, the Pentagon invested in a botched large-scale invasion of Somalia and backed the infamous, genocide-related Rwanda regime.
The Bill Clinton administration raised hell in Liberia, Gabon, Congo and Sierra Leone, bombed Sudan, and sent “advisers” to Ethiopia to back dodgy clients grabbing a piece of Somalia (by the way, Somalia has been at war for 20 years).
The September 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), conceived by the Bush administration, is explicit; Africa is a “strategic priority in fighting terrorism”.
Yet, the never-say-die “war on terror” is a sideshow in the Pentagon’s vast militarisation agenda, which favours client regimes, setting up military bases, and training of mercenaries – “cooperative partnerships” in Pentagon newspeak.
Africom has some sort of military “partnership” – bilateral agreements – with most of Africa’s 53 countries, not to mention fuzzy multilateral schemes such as West African Standby Force and Africa Partnership Station.
American warships have dropped by virtually every African nation except for those bordering the Mediterranean.
The exceptions: Ivory Coast, Sudan, Eritrea and Libya. Ivory Coast is now in the bag. So is South Sudan. Libya may be next. The only ones left to be incorporated to Africom will be Eritrea and Zimbabwe.
Africom’s reputation has not been exactly sterling – as the Tunisian and Egyptian chapters of the great 2011 Arab Revolt caught it totally by surprise. These “partners”, after all, were essential for surveillance of the southern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Libya for its part presented juicy possibilities: an easily demonised dictator; a pliable post-Gaddafi puppet regime; a crucial military base for Africom; loads of excellent cheap oil; and the possibility of throwing China out of Libya.
Under the Obama administration, Africom thus started its first African war. In the words of its commander, General Carter Ham, “we completed a complex, short-notice, operational mission in Libya and… transferred that mission to NATO.”
And that leads us to the next step. Africom will share all its African “assets” with NATO. Africom and NATO are in fact one – the Pentagon is a many-headed hydra after all.
Beijing for its part sees right through it; the Mediterranean as a NATO lake (neocolonialism is back especially, via France and Britain); Africa militarised by Africom; and Chinese interests at high risk.
The lure of ChinAfrica
One of the last crucial stages of globalisation – what we may call “ChinAfrica” – established itself almost in silence and invisibility, at least for Western eyes.
In the past decade, Africa became China’s new Far West. The epic tale of masses of Chinese workers and entrepreneurs discovering big empty virgin spaces, and wild mixed emotions from exoticism to rejection, racism to outright adventure, grips anyone’s imagination.
Individual Chinese have pierced the collective unconscious of Africa, they have made Africans dream – while China the great power proved it could conjure miracles far away from its shores.
For Africa, this “opposites attract” syndrome was a great boost after the 1960s decolonisation – and the horrid mess that followed it.
China repaved roads and railroads, built dams in Congo, Sudan and Ethiopia, equipped the whole of Africa with fibre optics, opened hospitals and orphanages, and – just before Tahrir Square – was about to aid Egypt to relaunch its civilian nuclear programme.
The white man in Africa has been, most of the time, arrogant and condescending. The Chinese, humble, courageous, efficient and discreet.
China will soon become Africa’s largest trading partner – ahead of France and the UK – and its top source of foreign investment. It’s telling that the best the West could come up with to counteract this geopolitical earthquake was to go the militarised way.
The external Chinese model of trade, aid and investment – not to mention the internal Chinese model of large-scale, state-led investments in infrastructure – made Africa forget about the West while boosting the strategic importance of Africa in the global economy.
Why would an African government rely on the ideology-based “adjustments” of IMF and the World Bank when China attaches no political conditions and respects sovereignty – for Beijing, the most important principle of international law? On top of it, China carries no colonial historical baggage in Africa.
Essentially, large swathes of Africa have rejected the West’s trademark shock therapy, and embraced China.
Western elites, predictably, were not amused. Beijing now clearly sees that in the wider context of the New Great Game in Eurasia, the Pentagon has now positioned itself to conduct a remixed Cold War with China all across Africa – using every trick in the book from obscure “partnerships” to engineered chaos.
The leadership in Beijing is silently observing the waters. For the moment, the Little Helmsman Deng’s “crossing the river while feeling the stones” holds.
The Pentagon better wise up. The best Beijing may offer is to help Africa to fulfil its destiny. In the eyes of Africans themselves, that certainly beats any Tomahawk.