Africa’s continent-wide boom in oil and natural gas exploration and production is on pace to change the energy import-export landscape in the near future, but this dynamic transformation also has national security implications for the United States, particularly vis-à-vis China.
According to a recent report by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, while increasing domestic shale production will continue to reduce American imports from Africa—and decrease the continent’s importance as a pillar of national energy security—it is becoming more important as a tenet of broader U.S. national security.
First, Africa is still a critical component of American energy diversification because the U.S. will remain energy insecure until domestic shale production picks up stateside. Second, most of Washington’s energy insecure Western allies, such as Europe and Japan, will remain dependent on African oil and gas for decades to come.
Third, the rapidly growing commercial stakes for American investors in African hydrocarbons and new opportunities for foreign investment compose an important economic component of U.S. national security, and Africa needs a total investment of $2.1 trillion in oil and natural gas supply infrastructure from 2010 to 2035. Africa’s current proven oil reserves make up only 8 percent of the world’s total, but China’s interest in the continent’s hydrocarbons—and the attraction of doing business there—has only increased.
China, the report notes, overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest energy importer in 2012, and its incorporation of Africa’s promise as an oil and gas goldmine into its own national security strategy has become blatantly clear. Beijing has been most successful in markets like Angola and other countries with fields “that have been ignored as too marginal or politically sensitive by major Western companies,” including Nigeria, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Sudan, ignoring international sanctions helped China’s “oil diplomacy,” allowing Chinese national oil companies (NOCs) to take over projects from Western companies. Unbound by OECD anti-corruption measures, Beijing exercised questionable business practices in Angola—such as a $14.5 billion oil-for-infrastructure deal—that likely greased the wheels for Chinese NOCs to acquire non-operator shares in oil and gas blocs.
China also understands that securing energy imports from Africa requires boosting naval capabilities. The Strategic Studies Institute report states, “It is an essential national development strategy to…build China into a maritime power…Security issues are increasingly prominent, involving overseas energy and resources.” Such a presence is likely to irk Washington, but it could also reinforce the protection of the seas.
Despite China’s consciousness of its developing role in the African energy sector, there is no cause for alarm in the U.S. American firms are involved in exploration and development in at least 22 countries on the continent, and they are far more technically proficient than Chinese NOCs, which lack the ability to operate deepwater offshore projects and have to “farm in” to existing consortia as non-operators.
Furthermore, the U.S. is on track to be more energy secure through increasing domestic production, whereas China will feel its own energy insecurity “even more acutely…because its perceived main rival is more secure,” states the report.
The Strategic Studies Institute report I’ve highlighted in this post is an important reminder that Africa and energy security matter to national security strategy.
Becoming a net energy exporter—as the U.S. is set to do by 2030—is not an excuse for Washington to pay less attention to these issues, but rather underlines the need for an active role in the international energy playing field.