On July 28, the West African country of Mali will hold its first presidential elections since the outbreak of conflicts in early 2012. These elections herald the return of democracy to Mali, a once-shining example of democracy until the 2012 Tuareg and Islamist-led insurgency in the country’s north prompted a military coup. Now, after more than a year of juntas, countercoup attempts, transitional leadership and foreign military intervention, the country has an opportunity to reset priorities and work toward stability and development.
The rebirth of a democratic Mali also opens a new chapter for engagement by the United States and China. As the world’s two largest powers and with each having a declared policy to strengthen engagement with Africa, the U.S. and China are set to work with Mali’s new government and address various issues of mutual concern. Those issues include poverty reduction (Mali is ranked 182 out of 186 countries in the Human Development Index), political stabilization and the elimination of ungoverned havens for international terrorism.
Existing ties between China and Mali as well as the U.S. and Mali are positive, but lack depth. In the case of China, Beijing’s economic relationship with Mali is relatively less dynamic than those with more resource-rich African countries. China’s main import from Mali is cotton, while its exports to Mali are primarily machinery and vehicles. The volume of bilateral trade and investment are rather low by Chinese standards. By early 2013, there are only about two dozen Chinese companies operating inside the country.
Beijing’s political interests in the West African country have also been tepid. Beijing harbors a tacit respect for Mali, as the country is part of France’s “sphere of influence,” and sees little need to actively challenge Paris’ traditional role in the area. The French 2012 military intervention in Mali unnerved Beijing not because it directly harmed China’s national interests but mostly because it undercut China’s non-interference principle by creating a legal precedent for unilateral intervention without U.N. authorization. When moving beyond such sphere-of-influence thinking, China mostly sees Mali as an “African brother” with whom China can build solidarity through aid. For example, in September 2011, China agreed to provide 70 million RMB ($11.4 million) in grants, 619 million RMB ($100.8 million) in concessional loans and 50 million RMB ($8.1 million) in zero-interest loans to Mali so as to “inherit and continue the friendly bilateral cooperation for the past half century.” This aid also helps China enhance its image as a “responsible stakeholder” internationally.
In comparison, the lack of interest by the U.S. in Mali is also apparent. Mali ranks 180th as a U.S. trading partner. The U.S.’s primary import from Mali is second-hand merchandise, which makes up 42 percent of total imports so far in 2013 at a paltry $1.5 million. U.S. exports to Mali consist of over 60 percent of chemicals and machinery. Similarly, U.S. development assistance in Mali, which prioritizes health and agriculture, indicates that the country is not a geostrategic priority. In 2012, the U.S. concluded a five-year, $461 million Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) that also focused on agricultural productivity and market access. Before the coup, Washington contributed to the military training in Mali, but at a rather low level.
Looking beyond the elections, the U.S. and China have each developed their distinct priorities in the country. China’s current priority is undoubtedly the U.N. peacekeeping mission (the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA), to which China contributes around 400 peacekeepers. The unprecedented contribution of 170 “security forces” (or “combat troops,” a term rejected by Beijing) marks a clear policy shift since China in the past dispatched only non-combat staff such as engineers and medical personnel. The combat troops significantly enhance China’s role in U.N. peacekeeping operations, while at the same time raise speculation about how their presence will affect China’s military overseas operation philosophy. Therefore, China is not only interested in Mali’s political stability, but also in the new knowledge, experiences and lessons the combat troops will gain in an overseas operation. Second, China also seeks to provide aid to Mali’s post-conflict reconstruction. However, Beijing made it clear that such donations will be provided only through bilateral channels instead of jointly with other western donors.
On the other hand, the U.S. seems to prioritize military engagement more while official U.S. assistance to Mali is planned to decline over the next two years. Senator Chris Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, has said that resumed military aid to Mali should increase to respond better to security challenges. The opening of a drone base in neighboring Niger underscores this new emphasis, and it will likely be furthered even more by shifting non-military assistance to Mali toward security sector reform.
Given their different priorities and philosophies, Mali might be another case where meaningful cooperation between Washington and Beijing will be more theoretical than practical. While the U.S. and China do share some common aspirations for the country, including economic development and political stability, it’s simply the reality that they will work in their own ways. China will work on political stabilization through the U.N. and on economic development with the Malian government. The U.S. will prioritize military and security issues while the economic considerations are at best secondary. This reality will present both tremendous opportunities and significant challenges to the new Malian government. In this sense, the presidential election in Mali is only the “first step in a long march.” The sustainability and success of the restored democratic system will take more time and serious international and domestic efforts to transpire.
This article was co-written with Michael Rettig and originally appeared in Brookings’ Up Front, on July 26, 2013.