The White House on Thursday accused China and Russia of using “predatory” practices to exploit Africa, a part of the world that President Trump has largely ignored and frequently mocked.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, said China lures African governments into expensive infrastructure projects that hide the true costs those countries are eventually saddled with. Russia, he said, expands its political and economic influence “with little regard for rule of law” or transparent governance.
The Trump administration has slashed foreign aid to Africa and other parts of the world, and is threatening to cut support for United Nations peacekeeping missions, many of which operate in Africa.
Still, Bolton insisted the prosperity and security of Africa is vital to U.S. interests, especially because poverty fuels terrorism. He complained that past administrations have spent billions in Africa with nothing to show for it.
But even as he criticized China and Russia for exploiting the continent, he vowed that the U.S. would put its interests first in dealing with the region.
“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,” Bolton said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington that has advised the Trump team on foreign policy.
“The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent, without focus or prioritization,” Bolton said. “And we will no longer support unproductive, unsuccessful and unaccountable U.N. peacekeeping missions.”
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Bolton declined to offer dollar figures for aid, trade or other economic plans. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development gave Africa approximately $8.7 billion last year.
He also emphasized the need for a “comprehensive” strategy to battle Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other militants who recruit and plot from the African continent.
The U.S. military has posted several thousand troops in a number of African nations, tasked primarily with pursuing Islamic militants and training local forces. Four American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger last year.
Bolton reserved particular scorn for China and Russia, countries he said are rapidly expanding their influence across the region.
“They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States,” he said. He accused China of using bribes, corruption and lies to entrap nations with heavy debt, which it collects by seizing the country’s principal assets.
As an example, Bolton pointed to Zambia, which owes Beijing up to $10 billion and will be forced to forfeit its national power and utility company to pay the debt. And in Djibouti, he said, the Chinese have built a military base near the U.S.-controlled Camp Lemonnier. The U.S. military has accused China of using sophisticated lasers from its base to interfere with American pilots.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is locked in a trade war with Trump, embarked on a massive multibillion-dollar “Belt and Road” plan that aims to build a global infrastructure connecting China by land and sea to the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Bolton said the initiative was part of China’s plan to establish global dominance. It comes as the United States under Trump is often seen as retreating from the world.
Russia, he said, destroys African lands to take natural resources and trades arms and energy for African votes at the U.N. Russian exploitation, he said, keeps numerous so-called strongmen in power and stunts democratic development.
Bolton said the U.S. strategy now will promote self-reliance and reciprocal trade and will shift American money to bilateral deals instead of using multilateral entities.
Africa rarely receives much attention from the administration.
Melania Trump made her first solo trip to Africa, but neither the president nor Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo have traveled there. Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was wrapping up his lone visit to Africa in March when Trump fired him.