By Dieter Neumann
When United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appeared together at the press conference at the Pentagon recently to reiterate America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, the subject of Africa did not come up. Sometimes what is avoided can be a clue to what is most important on the agenda.
The obvious intent of the stated focus on the Asia-Pacific region is to remind the rising China that America is still the big dog. Recent arms sales to Taiwan and the agreement with Australia to station American troops there are but two symbolic gestures to that effect. But the real focus of the "focus on Asia-Pacific" is not the Asia-Pacific region at all. It is Africa.
The creation of Africom in 2006 by the US military was a signal that America would not simply lie back and allow the Chinese to become the hegemon for the continent. That signal by itself was not enough, however. By 2009 Chinese trade with Africa surpassed America’s for the first time.
Chinese economic involvement took many forms. Obviously resource development is a priority for the Chinese, as Africa is acknowledged to be the world’s greatest storehouse of precious and rare metals and has vast unexploited oil reserves. While Chinese companies, all proxies for the government of China, compete with western companies for those resources, they also enter into agreements to provide critical infrastructure in the transportation, education and medical fields, all of which provide an advantage when it comes to winning hearts and minds.
The Libya uprising provided America and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies the first opportunity to turn back Chinese influence in Africa. Chinese companies had an estimated US$20 billion in projects underway and had courted Muammar Gaddafi for many years.
As the NATO-enabled rebel tide overwhelmed the Gaddafi forces, 36,000 Chinese engineers, tradesmen, and technicians fled the country. Chinese infrastructure projects and its involvement in Libya’s oil sector lay in disarray.
The years ahead will be rife with African proxy wars between the US and China. The escalating violence in South Sudan is but the latest manifestation of this. Obama and Panetta correctly claimed the Asia Pacific as their next focus after having, in their terms, stabilized the middle east.
But while the focus may be on the Asia-Pacific region, it is in Africa that the bullets will fly and the bombs will drop....