North Korean military officers attend a ceremony in Pyongyang on April 13. Photo:  Reuters
North Korean military officers attend a ceremony in Pyongyang on April 13. Photo: Reuters

In an interview with the Financial Times this month, US President Donald Trump offered up a headline-grabbing response when asked what kind of bargain his country could strike with China to resolve the North Korea crisis: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”

To make sure he was taken seriously, Trump ratcheted up the pressure on China to rein in its delinquent neighbor by sending a US Navy strike group toward the Koreas just after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

It is no surprise that of all the countries where China and the US have diverging priorities, North Korea is the one that causes the most sleepless nights in Washington. After all, the conventional wisdom is that North Korea will develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US homeland within the next five years. Between the political earthquakes of Trump’s election and South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, the North Korean regime has apparently been emboldened to push matters even further.

Even if tensions on the Korean Peninsula represent the most urgent flashpoint between the US and China, a number of competing interests could strain the delicate balance recently struck between Trump and Xi in Florida. North Korea has always a source of friction in the US-China relationship because of its immediate vicinity to China, but over the last two decades, the People’s Republic has pushed out of East Asia and gotten involved in some of the world’s most far-flung conflict zones.

As Beijing seeks out oil and other raw materials it needs to power its economic and industrial growth, it is running up against long-standing American presences – and even managing to supplant them.

Africa provides some of the best examples of this dynamic at work. In Sudan, a Western pariah because of President Omar al-Bashir’s policies, China did brisk business in securing access to energy: A decade ago, the Sudanese provided up to 10% of China’s oil supply and China had invested up to a billion dollars in pipelines, refineries, and other infrastructure.

Unfortunately, Sudan also taught China that claiming to adhere to a strictly non-interventionist policy while supplying the government with weapons in exchange for that oil could have painful consequences. When South Sudan became independent, taking with it most of the oilfields the Chinese relied on, Beijing had to recalibrate quickly to gain the trust of the new government in Juba after years of arming its adversary in Khartoum.

In reformulating its policy toward South Sudan, Beijing has given up the pretense that it can maintain a purely economic relationship with the fledgling state. Instead, China has acknowledged that it is, in fact, a powerful player in the country’s affairs.

Since the outbreak of a horrific civil war in South Sudan in 2013, China has found itself stepping into a role that it had often criticized the West for: involving itself in another country’s internal politics. China has been bringing its diplomatic pressure to bear on the South Sudanese government to persuade it to enter peace talks with the opposition, including overseeing a tense peace agreement in 2015.

While Beijing’s input is not unwelcome, the US nevertheless is watching warily: as China is becoming more comfortable in its role as a security provider, Washington is being frozen out of a country it helped found.

The same general trend applies across East Africa. China’s rising confidence in maneuvering African politics is also on display in Djibouti, where the PRC has built its first overseas military base a few kilometers away from Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US  military base in Africa. The US uses those facilities to conduct counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen, making it strategically vital to Washington.

Djibouti’s autocratic ruler Ismail Omar Guelleh’s decision to eject US personnel from nearby installations to the benefit of the Chinese set off alarms bells, and Guelleh also granted China preferential terms: Whereas the rent on the US base was jacked up to US$63 million per year in 2014, China secured a $20-million-per-year contract.

The discounted rate has everything to do with the disparity in investment from Chinese compared with US sources. Echoing Beijing’s relationship with Sudan, Chinese investment in Djibouti is estimated at some US$14 billion, paying for two new airports, an expansion of Djibouti’s seaport, and a railway connecting Djibouti with trading partner Ethiopia.

This year, work started on a 48 square kilometer free-trade zone, backed by Chinese loans, to cater to an expected US$7 billion in trade between the countries in the next two years. By contrast, the US grants Djibouti roughly US$4 billion annually in food aid and finances some small health and education projects. At US$153 million, bilateral trade between the US and Djibouti barely amounts to a blip in comparison. It is not hard to see why Guelleh has decided to fleece the Americans while going out of his way to foster a partnership with China.

This role reversal, where an eager combination of Chinese state and private interests supplants America’s existing relationships in Africa, is likely to repeat itself as Chinese supply chains become increasingly global.

For all the talk of confrontation between the Trump administration and Beijing in the South China Sea, Africa might well be the theater where China leaves the deepest footprint and at the greatest expense to US interests – even if Kim Jong-un’s constant stream of provocations and nuclear threats make North Korea the center of global attention. As Beijing considers US pleas for assistance in dealing with Pyongyang, China will continue to muscle out US interests in Africa, but also further afield.

Jon Connars

Jon Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently shuttling between Singapore and Bangkok with expertise in the ASEAN region. He has been featured in The Hill, The Diplomat and Asia Times.