China and, more recently, Russia have taken renewed interest in Africa. Given that countering their creeping influence is one of the announced goals of the Trump administration, a new push from NATO to expand its role in Africa deserves a closer look.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an effort to build a global infrastructure network with the “Middle Kingdom” as its central hub, has managed to get all but a handful of African states to sign on since 2013. Yet, the initiative will also reward China’s authoritarian friends in Africa. New roads to the interior will make it easier for Chinese mining companies to operate and authoritarians to put down tin-pot rebels. China is now the largest trading partner for most African countries. Russia is returning to Africa in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War, rebuilding Cold War era defense ties and seeking new areas to gain leverage over the West.
In late September 2019, a delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly visited the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. It’s an impressive facility, built and financed by China. Though the Chinese government received much praise for funding the project, it later had to deny reports that the building’s digital communications were compromised by a Chinese spy system.
The Addis Ababa meeting has been followed by other interactions in recent months. Including a first of its kind NATO-AU meeting in December where the two organizations agreed to cooperate on counterterrorism. The tempo of those interactions would have likely continued if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. European countries worry rightly that greater instability in the Sahel region will merely mean more refugees packed on rickety boats across the Mediterranean. It will also mean an increased terrorist threat to Europe in the long-term.