US-Senegal defence cooperation: A new direction for the US?

US-Senegal defence cooperation: A new direction for the US?

With the defence cooperation deal signed by the US and Senegal last week, the US is increasing its military foothold in Africa. It can be argued that this is a new direction in the Africa policy of the Obama administration and a response to China’s new naval base in Djibouti.

Last week the US and Senegal signed a defence cooperation deal. The deal is an upgrade of an existing agreement dating from 2001, and only entails increased access for US military deployment in case of humanitarian crises, such as the Ebola crisis, and to contribute to the battle against terrorist groups in the region. However, it can also be interpreted as a new direction and strategy of the US Africa Command, AFRICOM.

The deal comes at the time where China has been looking into taking its involvement from merely economic to a military level as well. They just started building their first naval base in Djibouti and have been showing interest in setting up more “military support facilities” in the near future.

The choice is geographically sensible as China could profit a lot from a naval base in the region, from an economic point of view. However, Djibouti is an interesting and perhaps even risky first choice since they already host a French base and, more importantly, the main American base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier. Is America’s increased military interest in Africa  a response to China’s rise?

AFRICOM’s hidden presence

Although the US insists that they are generally not militarily involved in Africa, it seems that they have been scaling up their presence below the radar. It is not entirely clear how many bases the US holds in Africa, but in over 30 countries there is some form of military activity, from infrastructures such as bases, port facilities, and fuel bunkers, as well as security cooperation. Moreover, the US military is involved in a wide range of operations in Africa, from the anti-piracy missions around the Horn of Africa to training missions in Mali and Nigeria.

But they have been very quiet about their involvement. The renewed cooperation deal with Senegal is one of the first openly announced deals and marks a new direction for American strategy. It seems that this new strategy does not include much of a physical presence but merely increased access in the form of small operating bases that can easily be activated and deployed over larger areas.

America’s main security interests

As US ambassador James Zumwalt states, this deal and future ones would primarily be to “help the U.S. military and the Senegalese military reinforce our cooperation together to deal with threats to our common interests. [Such as] another disease outbreak, a natural disaster calling for a humanitarian response, or a terrorist threat.”

Clearly in the past few years, one of America’s main concerns has been the growing influence and threat coming from terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. Senegal is increasingly facing threats and attacks from Islamist militants coming from countries in the region such as Mali and Nigeria. It is not surprising that AFRICOM has increased its efforts around the continent, albeit in a very quiet way.

The US involvement has been so low-key that over the years it might have even left the impression that the US were neglecting the African continent not just on a military level, but also on the economic level. Obama was trying to make up for this in 2014 when he organized the first United States – African Leader Summit and attempted to boost economic ties. With the economic interests of the US in Africa growing, it is to be expected that they would be consolidated by having these countries allow the US to develop military sites. But the US are not the only country with economic interests that need protection from terrorist and other security threats, hence the increasing military interest of China.

Chinese-US military cooperation or competition?

Where China has been quite vocal about their intentions, the US has preferred to be more discreet. Still, from recent developments and statements it can be seen that both countries have shown interest in the same places for setting new military support facilities, such as naval bases and deployment stations. It is likely that this will lead to a confrontation of some sort sooner or later.

While it could also be an opportunity for cooperation in missions with shared interests, such as anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations, the US and China’s strategy’s and security interests are heavily interlinked to their economic interests. Clashes could be on the horizon.

About Author

Dalia Saris

Dalia Saris is a London based research analyst. She has previously worked in Benin and at the Netherlands-African Business Council. She specialises in political reform and elections, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. She holds an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA (hons) in International Relations from the University of Groningen.