Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embarked Wednesday on a seven-nation tour of Africa, where Islamist militants have made startling gains and increasing Chinese influence has secured abundant resources for the communist-ruled nation.
During a stop in the West African nation of Senegal, Mrs. Clinton poked at China’s investment in African endeavors by urging more partnerships with democratic countries.
“America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights, even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.”
Her 11-day trip is the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to the continent since the Obama administration in June issued a strategy for Africa that calls for greater access for investment between U.S. and African countries, as well as democratic reform and economic development.
Speaking Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, senior State Department adviser Richard Roth noted that six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa.
“We wanted to take advantage of an increasingly prosperous continent,” Mr. Roth said of the administration’s new strategy.
A continent divided
The administration is focusing on Africa, in part, as a response to China’s growing investment there, such as infrastructure, energy, banking and manufacturing.
In 2000, trade between China and Africa was valued at about $10 billion. By 2010, China-Africa trade was valued at $114 billion — a more than tenfold increase in a decade. Comparatively, U.S.-Africa trade was about $38 billion in 2000 and $113 billion in 2010.
Additionally, the administration is responding to political upheaval, violent extremism, and a growing al Qaeda presence across the continent, particularly in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and Nigeria.
In Somalia, where leaders Wednesday approved a new draft constitution that guarantees many democratic rights, al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab has been waging a war with Somali and African Union forces for control of the impoverished country, which has been without a strong central government since 1991.
In the Sahel, which stretches from Mauritania to Sudan, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has conducted an insurgency against Algeria and nations such as Mali, which has had an influx of arms and the return of disaffected Tuareg fighters from Libya seeking opportunities to seize territory.
In northern Nigeria, the militant group Boko Haram has been increasingly conducting attacks against civilian and government targets in an attempt to eliminate Western influences in the country.
Transnational threats, such as narcotics smuggling, human trafficking and piracy, also abound. Failing and failed states are the source of problems on the continent as well.
“When states do not have the ability to control their territories and command the loyalties of their populations, voids and vacuums occur,” Mark Bellamy, director of the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday.
“Vacuums in Africa are always filled by groups of men with guns,” Mr. Bellamy said. “It’s the central dynamic in the Democratic Republic of Congo today, it’s a problem in Sudan. It’s a part of the problem in northern Mali today. It’s part of the problem in the northern part of Nigeria.”
Last year, longtime dictators were ousted from three of African countries — Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — that still are adjusting to democratic rule after the Arab Spring.
A plan for Africa
Under the Obama administration’s strategy, the U.S. seeks to confront violent Islamic extremism and political instability with a greater military role across the continent.
The U.S. will concentrate its efforts on “disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating” al Qaeda and its affiliates, expand efforts to build African military capabilities, assist African nations with criminal threats and piracy, and continue supporting peacekeeping missions, and prevent atrocities.
The U.S. has had long-standing security partnerships with African nations. Special Forces deployments to the continent have been ongoing for decades.
In 2008, the U.S. military officially set up a regional security command under U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. In addition, a National Guard program, the State Partnership Program, deploys troops from U.S. states to sister countries on the continent.
Last year, President Obama approved the deployment of 100 special operators to Uganda to defeat the rebel force Lord’s Resistance Army. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army announced a regional alignment strategy that makes brigades of soldiers available for short-term deployment to different regions of the world, including to the African continent.
Mr. Bellamy questioned whether Americans have an appetite for an increased military and civilian role in Africa, and urged that if the U.S. is going to get more involved in regional conflicts on the continent, that it do so only where there is the political will to make reforms by the African nation itself.
Mr. Bellamy said he was struck by a presidential statement accompanying the policy document that the “United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness or integrity of electoral processes and will stand in steady partnership with those who are committed to the principles of equality, justice and the rule of law.”
“That’s a pretty strong marker,” he said. “That’s not a statement that necessarily will be welcomed I think, from a certain number of African governments. A drive for improved government is important. It’s not necessarily something that’s going to win widespread and warm reception in Africa.”
Mrs. Clinton is expected to visit South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Malawi before traveling to South Africa, where she will continue a strategic dialogue with South African officials, promote U.S. business in the country and pay her respects to former President Nelson Mandela, who recently celebrated his 94th birthday.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.