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Research Questions

  1. What interests do the United States, China, and Russia have in Africa, and what is the relative potential for great-power competition there?
  2. Under what conditions could the United States expect to become involved in a conflict in Africa in which China, Russia, or both are involved?
  3. What are the implications for the U.S. government, the joint force, and the Department of the Air Force in particular?

The United States is in the midst of a shift in strategic focus from countering terrorism to countering China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Africa, a location for great-power competition during the Cold War, is yet again summoning more interest from the United States' great-power competitors — China and Russia. This report — part of a four-volume series — explores where and how the United States, China, and Russia are competing for influence in Africa; what kinds of interests they have in the continent; what kinds of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic influence-seeking measures they are using; where and why competition might turn into conflict; what form that conflict might take; and what implications the findings have for the U.S. government at large, the joint force, and the Department of the Air Force in particular. This research was completed in September 2021, just after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The report has not been subsequently revised.

Key Findings

  • Potential for competition in Africa is focused in the largest economies, countries with natural resources, and strategically important locations.
  • The United States remains a dominant aid donor and military actor in Africa, but China's and Russia's influence-seeking there is growing.
  • Great powers have limited motivations for involvement in military conflicts in Africa.
  • Great-power competition in Africa may not be a zero-sum game.
  • In some of the most-plausible conflict scenarios, the United States, China, and Russia are more likely to support the same actors rather than opposing sides.
  • Conflicts with great-power involvement in Africa are likely to involve distinct challenges of deconfliction, harassment, and behind-the-scenes political contests.


  • Recognize that U.S. interests in Africa require a long-term vision for the region.
  • Maintain long-term relations with key African partners.
  • Maintain and improve access to military and dual-use infrastructure.
  • Maintain working relations with allies and partners.
  • Prepare for increased and potentially shifting demand for U.S. Air Force assets.
  • Prepare for multifaceted operational challenges, including deconfliction and harassment, in future conflicts that may involve China and Russia.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Headquarters Air Force A5S and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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