As competition between the U.S. and China and Russia ramps up, Africa is once more becoming a geopolitical battlefield.

U.S. special operations forces have long had a presence in Africa. Over the last 20 years, American commandos have focused on fighting terrorism, mainly in North and East Africa.

Now, in addition to fighting violent extremist groups, they have to counter Chinese and Russian overtures in a region where great powers are increasingly competing for access, influence, and resources.

Competing With Different Rules

Putin Africa Summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin with African leaders at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, October 24, 2019. (Photo by Sergei Chirikov/Pool via Reuters)

The U.S. has a vastly different approach to Africa than its competitors.

Chinese aid, in the form of loans or infrastructure development, is often criticized as predatory and as part of Beijing’s quest for natural resources and global legitimacy. Russia sells arms and provides political advisors in addition to hunting for lucrative contracts for natural resources and other geopolitical benefits.

The U.S. focuses on building relationships and promoting the rules-based international system and democratic values. The U.S. also offers loans or grants, though their terms, which often encourage or require reforms, can be a turn-off for autocratic leaders, who gravitate toward Chinese and Russian offers with fewer strings attached.

Military engagement is also an important part of U.S. outreach to the continent, but for many years, Africa fell outside of what the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies considered important. With wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria demanding almost all of its attention, the U.S. largely ignored Africa.

As great-power competition between the U.S., China, and Russia heats up, the continent is becoming an undeclared battlefield that allows U.S. troops to study the capabilities of their competitors.