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Bolton says ‘predatory’ China is outpacing the U.S. in Africa

National security adviser John Bolton unveils the Trump administration's Africa strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Dec. 13.
National security adviser John Bolton unveils the Trump administration's Africa strategy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Dec. 13. (Cliff Owen/AP)

China is gaining economic and military leverage in Africa at the United States’ expense, national security adviser John Bolton said Thursday as he outlined the Trump administration’s skeptical view of foreign aid and peacekeeping operations on the continent.

Bolton said a full review of U.S. foreign aid is near completion, and will evaluate aid on factors including whether recipients oppose or work against U.S. policies and interests. He likened the forthcoming rubric to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.

“The Marshall Plan furthered American interests, bypassed the United Nations and targeted key sectors of foreign economies rather than dissipating aid across hundreds of programs,” Bolton said in a speech at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

President Trump’s new Africa program includes conditions on aid and a focus on trade and investment that is beneficial to the United States as well as the countries involved, Bolton said. He contrasted the approach with what he called China’s “predatory” trade, lending and practices in Africa, which he said is part of a “very well-thought-out” strategy to corner resources and military advantage.

“It’s very important for the United States and the West as a whole to wake up,” Bolton said.

“China uses bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said.

“Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as U.S. development projects,” he said.

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The State Department and USAID spend $8.7 billion a year for development, security and food assistance in Africa. The programs are geared to reduce poverty and hunger, create jobs and improve education. U.S. businesses invested $50 billion in Africa in 2017, which the administration says is part of the U.S. commitment to Africa.

The United States is trying to counter a massive flow of Chinese investment in the continent. An estimated 10,000 Chinese-owned firms operate in Africa, and China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner almost a decade ago. Beijing is building ports, railways, airports, hospitals, schools and stadiums across the continent. It has invested in African tobacco, sugar and rubber plantations.

Bolton also criticized Russian actions in Africa, saying the United States is losing ground to both global competitors.

“We want our economic partners in the region to thrive, prosper and control their own destinies. In America’s economic dealings, we ask only for reciprocity, never for subservience,” Bolton said.

Africa is the fastest-growing region in the world — its population is expected to double in the next three decades to 2.5 billion people, half of them under 24. Trump has not visited the continent as president, and drew criticism this year when he railed against immigration from African and other nations he referred to as “shithole countries.”

U.S. officials stress Washington’s desire to help Africa through programs that encourage economic growth, good government, better health care and spread the rule of law.

“Everywhere I speak to an African audience, I emphasize we seek to do business not just in Africa, but with Africa,” Tibor Nagy, the assistant secretary for African Affairs at the State Department, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Trump administration considers what’s next after Niger ambush

Trump’s approach to Africa will also focus on countering what Bolton called “radical Islamic terrorism” and violent conflict. He noted that U.S. forces are deployed in Africa to work against terrorist groups operating there but did not mention the ambush last year of a U.S. Special Forces unit in Niger. The incident was so chaotic that it took nearly two days to find the remains of one service member.

The attack, launched by about 100 militants linked with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, underscored the dangers of dispersing small teams of service members across vast areas in which the Pentagon does not have the same level of support available for ground forces as in a country such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

In an investigation afterward, U.S. Africa Command determined that the terrorist group was able to mass such a force against U.S. and Nigerian soldiers because of numerous individual and institutional mistakes.

The Pentagon has since begun to grapple with the idea of reducing the number of U.S. troops across the continent over the next three years. Defense officials have been vague about what that could entail but said that the number of troops will probably be reduced by about 10 percent. In recent years, there have been about 7,200 U.S. troops and Defense Department civilians assigned across the continent, according to the Pentagon.

Dan Lamothe and Carol Morello contributed to this report.