Traditionally, Africa holds a low priority for most American administrations. Perhaps once in an administration, the president will visit the continent. The secretary of State does not visit sub-Saharan Africa much more. Visits beyond South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Senegal are even rarer. Within the State Department, the Bureau of African Affairs is usually lowest on the totem pole, in line for attention on the Seventh Floor after every other regional bureau and just ahead of issues relating to the building’s cafeteria management and parking lot.
It is strategic suicide to allow such neglect to continue. While Washington now acknowledges China’s global competition, Beijing signals an expansion of its ambitions in the Horn of Africa. If Beijing’s primary focus over the past decade has been bolstering its military presence in the South China Sea, and its secondary influence has been bolstering in economic presence and military infrastructure in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, then its ambitions in the Horn of Africa have been a close third. It may now be moving up in China’s calculus.
China has long used debt diplomacy to augment its influence in Djibouti and, five years ago, formally opened its first overseas Navy base in the Red Sea country that also hosts U.S. forces. Beijing also cultivated former Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo, who offered China fishing rights at fire sale prices. Somaliland checked China’s ambitions when it established formal ties to Taiwan. While the National Security Council praised the move at the time, the Biden administration has been more circumspect.
Beijing may see Washington’s reticence as an invitation to make a move on a strategic region. Speaking at the China-Horn of Africa “First Peace, Governance, and Development Conference” in Addis Ababa, Xue Bing, China’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, said Beijing wanted to play a larger role, “not only in trade and investments but also in the area of peace and development.” “This is the first time for China to play a role in the area of security,” he added. No longer might China limit its forces to its base in Djibouti, but it could instead participate in ‘peace-keeping.’
While China has until now been opportunistic, exploiting commercial opportunities in Ethiopia and Djibouti, Xue’s remarks suggest China could soon move into a new stage in which it uses its military under the guise of security operations or partnerships in order to shape governments to its interests along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts from Sudan down to Kenya.
The danger for the United States and the free world is great. The Horn is home to the Bab el-Mandab, one of the world’s most important strategic chokepoints, and within easy reach to two others: the Suez Canal 1,440 miles north (but whose traffic must pass the Bab el-Mandab) and the Strait of Hormuz 1,280 miles to the northeast. Should China succeed in consolidating control over the region, it would effectively control trade in energy, grain, and fertilizer.
Russia and Ukraine might now consume White House focus, but the Biden administration would be negligent if it ignores Africa like so many of its predecessors did. After surveying the Port of Berbera and that city’s refurbished airport, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) recommended a more permanent presence there. The Pentagon and intelligence community agree. So too do an increasingly large bipartisan faction in Congress. The chief impediment? State Department inertia. It is time National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calls a Principal’s Committee meeting to resolve the impasse. Not only should the United States contribute to Berbera’s renaissance, but it is long past time for the State Department to open a consulate in Hargeisa, the only true democracy in the Horn of Africa.
The State Department and White House should also solidify its relationship with Kenya, a true pivotal state in the region. Nairobi should not be a passing thought in Foggy Bottom, but on the agenda as much as Berlin, Paris, or Mexico City are.
Finally, there is new hope in Somalia as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud undertakes his second, non-consecutive term as president with an energy and appreciation for the greater Somali good so often lacking during Farmaajo’s rule. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is not only a patriot, but also a responsible partner whom the United States should engage far more in order to help Somalia achieve its best future while simultaneously denying China an opportunity to exploit the country. While anti-Americanism may run deep among the followers of Farmaajo and his terrorist-supporting former national intelligence and security advisor Fahad Yasin, patriotic Somalis would recognize that China depends upon the corruption of elites, but building stable, developed, and independently prosperous countries has never been on its agenda. Somalia can be truly independent in the Western sphere; it can only aspire to ossified kleptocracy under China’s influence.
Xue is arrogant. He believes China is winning and that the Horn of Africa is a tabula rasa for China’s ambitions. It is time to show him how wrong he is.
Expert Biography – Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).