It is ironically fitting that during this week's 50th anniversary of the inception of the "space race" the U.S. government turns its attention to another type of competition, this time withing the sphere of what could be up until now described as an earthly policy vacuum.
Once again a dangerous bi-polar game is being played. But this game does not have the visibility of a Sputnik streaking across the American sky. No, this game is being played much further below the radar, as the United States ramps up AFRICOM or Africa Command, a U.S. military command charged with coordinating U.S.-led military forces in Africa out of Stuttgart, Germany, even as an emerging Chinese superpower challenges the role and influence of the United States in Africa.
It's hard to say exactly when the first move in this game was made. I recall taking a meeting with a representative of a Chinese (Taiwanese) concern in Johannesburg, South Africa in early 2000. It still stands out for me because after the meeting concluded, though I found the exchange pleasant, amiable and positive in nature, I had trouble putting my finger on what we had met about, or what the nature of the time we had spent was for. I admit this is not all that uncommon in any "meeting" circumstance, yet in hindsight I think that perhaps they may have been keeping their eye out for potential competitors, expecting eventual U.S. representatives to be on the ground making the type of plays that would visibly signal that the United States was a major force that would secure its interests in Africa and not take too kindly to Chinese encroachment. From what I can tell, the rebuff expected by the Chinese never really materialized with any significance; that is until now.
In fact one could say this move, the consolidation of AFRICOM is merely a signal to America's new rival that says: Let's just cut to the chase: Game on.
In October of last year, The Economist published an article titled "Never Too Late To Scramble" detailing the tremendous amounts of Chinese foreign direct investment pouring into Sub-Saharan Africa, and the issues emerging from such actions. These issues are to say the least numerous and complex.
U.S. and Chinese overtures to African states have placed African political leaders in a precarious position. How does one choose between a potential liberator and police force in the U.S. military — given the certainty of continental conflict — and a potential partner in development with the capacity and perhaps will to create a permanent infrastructure – such as roads, hospitals, schools and utilities. Does the emerging competition between the two superpowers create conditions for proxy war on many levels in which the only true losers will be, once again, the African people?
Is this simply a colonial repeat? Does either side of this game truly care about anything other than their own domestic and economic interests? Hasn't the United States had its chance to become a friend to Africa by truly becoming an economic partner? Shouldn't Africa have an alternative in terms of strategic partnership? One that has not made any ideological demands for its dollars, instead of letting free markets determine Africa's future? And by the way didn't we invent the free-market and aren't the Chinese communist?
Since I do not consider myself a skeptic or cynic, I will simply say that if using Africa's political and foreign policy history as a litmus test is any indication of what will take place, the conditions being set forth could become the perfect storm. Nonetheless for now Africa's future in relationship to U.S. or Chinese foreign policy remains unwritten.
But these new elements to this evolving foreign policy issue deserve the American public's attention; not only because of the vulnerable position this new emerging bi-polar "scramble" places an already over-exploited continent, but because again, the world and its peoples are being given an opportunity to do right by Africa and we should consider this a moral obligation.
I liken Africa's current position to that of a nascent prodigy whom everyone recognizes as such. Does the world stand by and allow that individual to be misled, strung out, subjected to violent abuse, starved, diseased and then left to its own devices?
Africa is reaching a position to leave the economic netherworld it has been in for decades and to become a continent of powerful states and emerging free-market economies. Shouldn't we want that?
Two things are certain given the recent U.S. attention to this new "scramble." First we've shown up late to the game, and after surveying the playing field, radioed Washington a la Apollo 13 to say: "we have a problem!"
Second, now that U.S. attention is focused on Africa there needs be accountability for the engagement that is sure to follow; so that everyone knows in no uncertain terms that the eagle has landed in Africa.
Malik Bell is a Financial Planner and Graduate Student focusing Collective Security Studies and Multi-lateral Decision Making.