China is building its first military base in Africa. America should be very nervous.

Given China’s breakneck expansion into Africa, that’s just not good enough. In Africa, China has found not just a market for money but for jobs and land — crucial components of sustained economic growth. As December’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation revealed, the Middle Kingdom wants to ensure privileged access to that kind of future. Although it’s hard to unravel the details, Beijing used the Forum to pledge $60 billion in loans and export credits.

No, the Chinese aren’t about to lap the U.S. in investment anytime soon, but the financials have taken on an extra edge at a moment when Beijing needs all the good news it can get. “China operates in Africa with greater aplomb and with more nuanced and mutually beneficial relationships than America’s corporations and its federal [government],” as one private equity analyst noted at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The USG’s most visible diplomatic effort in Africa, Power Africa, is sputtering. American businesses haven’t sufficiently picked up the slack.”

Which brings us to the very different Africa the U.S. confronts. While China is free to pursue its economic and financial interests with clarity and focus, allowing its military and political agenda to unfold accordingly, Washington finds itself scrambling to keep up with a sour security situation that doesn’t play to its strengths. Instead of reaching into Africa’s sub-Saharan heartland, where China is racking up lucrative or influential deals, the U.S. will have to stretch itself remarkably thin over the wide and barren expanse of Africa’s northern tier.