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Don't forget the critical role of China in Mali

The Chinese government has given millions to the North African country, and their influence is massive

Another year and another foreign adventure for the UK military, but with regards to Mali many analysts and commentators are missing an angle; the ‘Pivot to Asia’ and the surging role of China in the world.

This pivot, a strategic reorientation by the US to address the power of China, is a topic which haunts academic, policy-making and defence circles, including Defence Secretary Phil Hammond, who has argued previously that with increased US attention on Asia our European allies should step up and take a more "adventurous" role in foreign policy.

Of course, the pivot does not mean that the rest of the world becomes less important, or that the Middle East will lose its primacy, and others are right to make a link between combatants returning from Libya and the destabilisation of Mali. Moreover, the shift doesn’t mean that the US response to China’s power will be limited to pan-Pacific intrigue. It may prove to be in Africa - and by Africans - that the new rivalry will be felt most.

The war of words has been underway for some time. Last year, during a diplomatic jaunt around Africa, Hillary Clinton mustered arguably epic levels of intellectual dishonesty as she encouraged Africans to work with responsible democratic countries (pronounced: America) and avoid those who disregard human rights and look to extract Africa’s resources for their own ends. Though Clinton avoided mentioning China by name, she did enough to draw a rebuke from the Chinese. But in truth, this isn’t just going to be a shouting match.

US in Africa

The military component to the American program in Africa is the US African Command or Africom. Headquartered in Stuttgart, it serves as one of the five regional commands into which the world is subdivided by the United States. It includes a potent compliment of marines, air force, army, naval and Special Forces personnel spread around Germany, Italy and the Horn of Africa.

Africom has been operational and actively training the military forces of various African nations since 2007. Given Clinton’s comments it’s no leap of faith to see that the China’s influence in Africa, characterized by large sums of money with few strings attached in exchange for mineral concessions, is a concern for the US. This rivalry may come to shape the future of a continent already marked out like an imperial jigsaw puzzle.

Mali and the other former French colonies which surround it have had extensive dealings with China. The country, one of the poorest in the world, has received substantial Chinese money for development. In 2011 China made good on a package of hundreds of millions, partially as a “gift” to improve the “living standards of Malian people”.

Some argue that China will sit back and let the French do its work for it by handling the crisis and restoring some kind of stability, with China perhaps moving back in later. Contrary to that view, it is worth considering that the intervention may be at least partially informed by a need to counter the Chinese, certainly on the part of the US and also on the part of major European countries.

Mission Creep

The danger of UK involvement is clear, even if there is only a logistical element committed. Mission creep is the term my own commanding officer used in Afghanistan and he was proven right; war pulls intentions out of shape as no other human activity can. How long before flying French troops and equipment in and out of the country becomes transporting them internally? How long until the conflict escalates and drags more forces in, leaving us with personnel entangled in a new African insurgency? These are questions which concerned ministers and defence chiefs are mulling over.

As we have seen elsewhere, a lengthy occupation is likely to take the destiny of African people further out of their own control, perhaps even more so than under Chinese auspices. We are also faced with repeating a lesson which ought to have been learned by now; interventions consistently escalate violence - just as the troop increase in Afghanistan in 2006 created the protracted guerrilla war which had simply not existed beforehand.

Just as fighters have returned to Mali having cut their teeth elsewhere, we should also bear in mind that in a globalized world insurgent technology no more lingers at border checkpoints then rival imperial powers do. Much as the IED threat in Afghanistan migrated from Iraq, we might ask how long until we see the first roadside bomb in Mali? And from then on, given the training role which is likely to emerge to shore up Mali’s dilapidated military, how long until we see our first insider attack?