East Africa is currently in the world’s spotlight while simultaneously going through immense political and economic changes. In 2018, a peace deal was orchestrated between longtime enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea, and multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects have taken place. Overall, the region is transforming, providing opportunities for outside powers to enhance their economic impact. Russia and China have also taken note of the benefits of having more control in the East African region. China and Russia’s interest in the sub-Saharan Africa has forced the United States to also take notice.
The Nile and the Red Sea have both played a critical role in world history. Currently, both remain to be part of intense international competition. Between Addis Ababa’s plans to finish construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the continuous race between Middle Eastern powers to establish a military presence in the Horn of Africa, contests over the future of the Nile and Red Sea exemplify some of the most significant geopolitical developments in the Middle East and East Africa in the 21st century.
The new military and economic investments are reshaping geopolitical dynamics on both sides of the Red Sea. The emergence of a common political and economic playing-field offers opportunities for both development and integration. However, it also poses risks. For the fragile African states on the western shores of the Red Sea, new engagement from outsiders has proved to be both beneficial and risky.
Eritrea has come out of its diplomatic isolation, signing declarations of peace and cooperation with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia and publicly calling for the lifting of international sanctions. After years of hostility over the building of the Renaissance Damn on the Blue line, Egypt and Ethiopia have witnessed a significant improvement in relations. Sudan also has mended relations with its northern neighbor and has managed to get U.S. sanctions lifted.
For many, it has been great to see these new political developments, and it represents a new beginning for East African politics. However, it is important to note that these changes have come from some external factors. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to be behind many of these efforts, but their role has been shaped by even bigger players. The force behind these changes is the major shift of U.S. foreign and defense policy from “the war on terror” to strategic competition with other global powers, mainly China and Russia.
As Russia and China make its way into the East African region, the United States may have permitted the lifting of the sanctions against Eritrea as a prelude to improving its own bilateral ties with the country. In fact, Asmara and the United States had relatively close ties in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Eritrea joined the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003 and even went as far as offering the United States space to set up a naval base on the Red Sea. However, the relationship weakened over time due to the United States being concerned about Asmara’s human rights record, especially after authorities arrested two Eritreans employed by the United States embassy in Asmara. Normalization between the United States and Eritrea could even accelerate if the members of the current administration win out over those who prioritize greater emphasis on human rights, a topic that Asmara has failed to significantly improve on.
In the later part of 2018, the policy shift was outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy and discussed by a number of U.S. official, including Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who said in a January speech, “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security. We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other… To those who threaten America’s experiment in democracy, they must know if they challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day.”
National Security advisor, John Bolton, added to this in a speech: “Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region. Our first priority, enhancing U.S. economic ties with the region, is not only essential to improving opportunities for American workers and businesses. It is also vital to safeguarding the economic independence of African states and protecting U.S. national security interests.”
The Trump administration appointed four special envoys to coordinate United States policy toward key players: Iran, North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan. However, in the Red Sea, one of the most dangerous and lethal regions of the world afflicted by several interconnected conflicts and rivalries that pose serious roadblocks to American interests.
This shift regarding East Africa from the United States has brought several major changes in the region. First, it has continued to diminish the importance the United States gives to supporting the armies of countries in East Africa, especially Ethiopia’s. In turn, with the exception of UN peace-keeping missions, Ethiopian’s army’s role in foreign policy and regional security will decline.
The shift has benefitted the Egyptian military. In September 2018, the United States reinstated $195 million in military aid to Egypt which was frozen last year over the country’s poor human rights record and their relations with North Korea. Also, the United States has given support of a new role of the Egyptian military in East Africa. In 2018, Cairo dispatched Egyptian troops in Eritrea, stationing them at the border with Sudan, provoking speculations that it is seeking to establish a military base there.
Second, this shift has also meant that the United States government is putting more effort on the economic side, which has the potential to have economic and diplomatic implications. Beyond this, the United States recognizes that it cannot match the scale of the Chinese investment in Africa, it is still looking to limit Chinese economic influence in the region.
A part of the United States’ strategy is to encourage U.S. businesses to invest more in East Africa. This has already been seen in Ethiopia. In the past United States’ officials from the Department of Defense and the White House used to visit Addis Ababa. Now the visits include officials of the Department of Commerce accompanied by a variety of U.S. businessmen.
While speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., National Security Advisor, John Bolton highlighted that the policy shift is meant to counter on the continent the rapidly expanding financial and political influence of China and Russia. He said, “They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to fain a competitive advantage over the United States. 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 shared that China is using large loans and opaque agreements to make Africa “captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” singling out projects in Zambia and Djibouti where he said Chinese enterprises are set to take over a state power company and a key port. However, some political and foreign policy analysts warn against using the East African region as a battleground for United States competition with China. “It can undermine our actual strategies with many countries in Africa by seeing them through the prism of competition,” says senior fellow Michael Fuchs at the Center for American Progress, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration.
Some East African countries may limit their partnerships with China, in fear of consequences from the United States. Therefore, China has already announced its decision to cut down investment in Ethiopia until its current debt payment is restructured. There have also been discussions that the United States will set up a special agency to invest up to $60 billion to combat Chinese heed in the developing world, including East Africa.
In his March 2018 address to the African Union, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese dollars from Africa. But it is important that African countries carefully consider the terms of those agreements and not forfeit their sovereignty.” This points to the idea that the United States may start pushing past the geopolitical front in East Africa and start pushing on an economic front.
While the region needs to deal with its rising debt and dependence on China, the economic policies that the United States would press for might not be in East Africa’s best interest either. The region will need as much assistance as possible, but as the competition between China and the United States strengthens, financial support will most likely come with conditions.
Russia has also turned its attention to Africa, launching its more ambitious African strategy since Soviet times. Russia has maintained strong ties with countries such as Sudan, owing to arms deals and overlapping ideological hostility toward foreign interventions. Russia has also constructed a path to other countries on the continent such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Rwanda and more. In fact, hundreds of Russian military trainers are working in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. It is likely that Moscow believes that it can gain mineral concessions and influence in oft-neglected capitals like Bangui for relatively little investment of its military diplomacy.
In regards to Russia, according to Secretary Bolton, “Russia advances its political and economic relationships with little regard for the rule of law or transparent or accountable government.” Critics, including Fuchs welcomes the attention by the Trump administration to Africa, he does not predict Bolton’s announcements to convince many partners and East Africa of a United States commitment in the region. “I think that he potentially undermined some of the potential for these partnerships with some of the policy proposals that he made,” Fuchs said
The immediate reaction to the American policy shift from African officials appeared to be cautious optimism. “We are happy to understand that finally America has a strategy that is purposeful towards Africa,” David Gacheru, the deputy chief of mission at Kenya’s embassy in Washington said, adding that the Trump administration is potentially filling a void that has existed for many years.
The United States has sent more than $8 billion in aid to African in each of the past two fiscal years and a review of all aid is being finalized. The billions of dollars sent to the region over recent decades has failed to stop radicalism, terrorism, and violence, and it has not prevented other influences from increasing their own influence and power. “They have not led to stable and transparent governance, economic viability and increasing development across the region,” said Bolton.
The sea ports in East Africa are of great strategic value not only for African countries, but also for the entire world as many of these ports are adjacent to the Red Sea where oil production passed through that area to reach its final destination. These ports are also of strategic military value for many countries including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The shift in the United States policy regarding East Africa comes with both great assets and risks for everyone involved. Mainly, the United States needs to focus on gaining even more control of the region. With China and Russia fighting to do the same, the task is not easy. However, it will be of great strategic power to the United States to have more influence in East Africa.