The 19th century saw an epic struggle between competing European powers to divvy up Africa for colonies.
Now a similar struggle for Africa is underway, but the main competitors are the U.S. and China, and the two are competing for the Dark Continent's energy and other natural resource reserves.
The tussle will define the next decade as the two energy-starved superpowers wrestle over Africa's nascent energy riches, which have remained significantly underdeveloped up to now. Drawing a rough bifurcation line between the two competitors, China is ascendant in east Africa, while the U.S. dominates energy exports from the west, with the Arab Magreb (including Libya) up for grabs. At a number of points the fault lines will overlap.
By 2013 African oil production is projected to rise to 10.7-11.4 million barrels per day (bpd), and by 2018 to 12.4-14.5 million bpd. The U.S. is currently Nigeria's biggest oil importer, and the National Intelligence Council predicts that American imports from the Gulf of Guinea will increase to more than 25 percent of all U.S. imports by 2015.
The United States currently imports about 11.3 million barrels per day (bpd); the remaining 7.5 million bpd are produced domestically. America's top 15 oil importers include, according to February U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics, Saudi Arabia (1.1 million bpd), Nigeria (958,000 bpd), Angola (323,00 bpd), Algeria (264,000 bpd), Equatorial Guinea (41,000 bpd) and Chad (53,000 bpd.)
Further east, China uses about 8 million bpd, a demand that is projected to rise to 11.3 million bpd by 2015 and now receives 28 percent of its oil imports from Africa.
Libya is proving divisive among the U.S. and its European African oil importing partners, as Washington does not currently import Libyan crude, but Europe currently imports around 80 percent of Libya's 1.3 million bpd of exports.
NATO's Libyan intervention has proven fractious in black Africa; in March Nigeria's Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia commented, "The contradictions between principle and national interest ... have enabled the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya ostensibly to protect innocent civilians from slaughter, but to watch seemingly helplessly (in Ivory Coast) as ...men, women and children are slaughtered in equally, even if less egregious, violence."
While since 9/11 Washington has remained fixated on its global war on terror (GWOT), China has quietly and persistently overtaken the U.S. to become Africa's largest trading partner, particularly in oil, which now accounts for 73 percent of African exports. Beijing' dramatic increase in its African interests is reflected in bilateral trade figures - in 1950, the first full year of the government of the People's Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung's Communist party, China-Africa bilateral trade was a mere $12.14 million.
What changed the equation was the fact that in 1993 China became reliant upon the international oil market, when demand for oil exceeded supply. Two years later, Chinese imports from Africa totaled $1.4 billion and by 2006, their value had soared to $28.7 billion, a 2,000 percent increase. According to the Chinese government's first white paper on its economic and trade cooperation with Africa, China's trade with Africa has soared to $114.81 billion in the first 11 months of 2010.
According to the International Monetary Fund, oil now accounts for 99 percent of Sudanese exports, with China absorbing for 65 percent of them. Energy is Angola's sole export hard currency earner, with China now accounting for 35 percent of Angolan exports.
China's top oil suppliers are now Saudi Arabia, Iran, Angola, Russia, Oman and Sudan. Saudi Arabia is China's top oil supplier (1.1 million barrels a day.) China is also buying oil from Chad, Gabon and Nigeria as well. China's top African oil suppliers are now Angola, Sudan and Nigeria.
The potential fault-line for direct U.S.-Chinese African energy competition runs through Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, while both Russia and Iran, from whom the U.S. has no imports, remain ideological opponents of Washington, both of whom with which China retains good relations. The Saudi leadership has been traumatized by both the Arab spring and NATO's Libyan incursion, while Nigeria is notorious for the corruption of its energy sector, a political reality that Washington feels compelled to lecture Abuja about. Further south, Washington decries the policies of the Sudanese government, about which Beijing remains scrupulously silent.
The upcoming struggle over African resources between the U.S. and China is one of differing approaches. Washington arrives in Africa with cash and an ideology replete with human rights and corruption lectures, back up by punitive loans from Western financial institutions and a carrier task force lurking over the horizon, lacking only the 19th century's European missionaries.
China arrives with low-interest loans, a total lack of ideology and a shared history of colonialist exploitation, and while attempting to secure the best possible deals, a willingness to provide infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, schools and hospitals. In the battle for hearts and minds, Beijing's approach would seem to have the inside track.
Western investors, caveat emptor.
By John Daly of OilPrice.com