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The Secret War Between China and the US for Africa's Oil Riches

Published: November 20, 2012
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In the struggle to secure energy resources, the great powers consider all states to be fair game. Indeed, this is precisely what characterizes American foreign policy in the modern era. When it comes to economic and geopolitical interests, Washington seldom differentiates between democratic leaders and despots, especially when those interests involve oil. Currently, the stakes are high in the rush to secure oil resources and nowhere is this more evident than in the Sino-American rivalry in Africa. Both states are competing to secure their share of oil supplies in order to quench their addiction to the coveted ‘black gold.’

One of Washington’s primary energy security concerns has been to diversify its sources of foreign oil. During the 1970s oil crisis, the United States imported one-third of its petroleum. Now, it imports approximately 11.4 million barrels per day of petroleum (which includes crude oil and petroleum products), amounting to 45 percent of all petroleum consumed in America [1]. While most of its foreign oil comes from the western hemisphere, a sizable portion comes from Africa and the Persian Gulf [2]. Despite the fact that America’s reliance on foreign oil has decreased since its peak in 2005, it is still vulnerable to supply disruptions, oil price shocks and OPEC supply squeezing. For Washington, the need to decrease its vulnerability to foreign oil is a principle national security interest, and the solution lies in diversifying imports away from overreliance on any one region.

West African oil remains strategically important for U.S. policy makers, especially since it provides an alternative to Persian Gulf oil. West Africa is also geographically closer, making transportation less costly than oil from the Persian Gulf. The high-quality sweet crude that is produced by the Gulf of Guinea states is crucial to the U.S. market. As such, oil corporations are doing whatever they can to secure this important hydrocarbon and Washington is fervently promoting free trade in Africa in order to make it easier for them. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two of the largest oil-producing states: Nigeria and Angola. These two states account for 53 percent and 26 percent of total U.S. petroleum imports from Sub-Saharan Africa respectively [3]. Thus, it is no surprise that the two states also receive the largest share of U.S. security assistance to Africa.

In order to boost its influence in Africa and secure the loyalty of governments, the U.S. has provided military arms and developed military training programs with individual African governments. To increase its military presence, it has acquired basing rights and access to airfields in Djibouti, Uganda, Mali, Senegal and Gabon, along with port facilities in Morocco and Tunisia. In addition, it has also expanded its covert intelligence operations across Africa in the name of combatting terrorism [4]. Yet, these operations also serve another purpose. By expanding its military presence in Africa, Washington is reminding its rivals that it is both willing and able to respond to threats to its strategic interests, the likes of which include the unimpeded flow of African oil.

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