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China takes a step towards the Horn of Africa

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Traditionally, Africa is a low priority for most US 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 Department of State, the Bureau of African Affairs is typically lowest on the totem pole, in line for attention on the seventh floor after all other regional offices and just ahead of cafeteria management issues. and in the parking lot of the building.

It is strategic suicide to allow such neglect to continue. While Washington now recognizes China’s global competition, Beijing signals an expansion of its ambitions in the Horn of Africa. While Beijing’s primary focus over the past decade has been to bolster its military presence in the South China Sea, and its secondary influence has been to bolster its economic presence and military infrastructure in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, so his ambitions in the Horn of Africa were a close third. It may now be rising in China’s reckoning.

China has long used debt diplomacy to increase its influence in Djibouti and five years ago officially opened its first overseas naval base in the Red Sea country which also hosts US forces. Beijing has also cultivated former Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo, who offered China fishing rights at rock bottom prices. Somaliland dampened China’s ambitions when it established formal ties with Taiwan. While the National Security Council rented the move at the time, the Biden administration was more circumspect.

Beijing may see Washington’s reluctance as an invitation to act on a strategic region. Speaking at the “First China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference” in Addis Ababa, Xue Bing, China’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, said that Beijing wanted to play a bigger role, “not only in trade and investment but also in the field of peace and development. “This is the first time that China has played a role in the field of security”, China could no longer limit its forces to its base in Djibouti, but could instead participate in “peacekeeping”.

While China has so far been opportunistic, exploiting business opportunities in Ethiopia and Djibouti, Xue’s remarks suggest that China may soon move to a new stage in which it uses its military under cover of security operations. or partnerships in order to shape governments according to its interests. the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, from Sudan to Kenya.

The danger for the United States and the free world is great. The Horn is home to Bab el-Mandab, one of the world’s most important strategic bottlenecks, and within easy reach of two others: the Suez Canal 2,440 km to the north (but whose traffic must pass through Bab el-Mandab) and the Strait of Hormuz 1,280 miles to the northeast. If China succeeded in consolidating its control over the region, it would effectively control the energy, grain and fertilizer trade.

Russia and Ukraine may now monopolize the White House’s attention, but the Biden administration would be remiss if it ignored Africa as so many of its predecessors have done. After inspecting the port of Berbera and the city’s renovated airport, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) recommended a more permanent presence there. The Pentagon and the intelligence community agree. So is a growing bipartisan faction in Congress. The main obstacle? State Department inertia. It’s time for National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to call a main committee meeting to resolve the impasse. Not only must the United States contribute to the revival of Berbera, but it is high time for the State Department to open a consulate in Hargeisa, the only true democracy in the Horn of Africa.

The State Department and the White House should also solidify its relations with Kenya, a real 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.

Finally, there is new hope in Somalia as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud embarks on his second non-consecutive term as president with an energy and appreciation for the greater good of Somalia so often absent during Farmaajo’s rule. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is not only a patriot, but also a responsible partner whom the United States should engage much more in order to help Somalia achieve its best future while simultaneously denying China the opportunity to exploit the country. . While anti-Americanism may run deep among supporters of Farmaajo and his former intelligence and national security adviser, terrorism-supporter Fahad Yasin, patriotic Somalis would recognize that China depends on the corruption of elites, but building stable, independently developed and prosperous countries has never been on his agenda. Somalia can be truly independent in the Western sphere; it can only aspire to a sclerotic kleptocracy under Chinese influence.

Xue is arrogant. He believes China is winning and the Horn of Africa is a clean slate for China’s ambitions. It’s time to show him how wrong he is.

Biography of experts – Now contributing editor in 1945, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies and Shia 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 Hiring Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).