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An expected reset of the US-China relationship: An analysis of its impact on Africa

Occasional paper 1/2021

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April 2021

Author: Derek L Fleming


The United States of America (US) has a long and meaningful history of involvement in Africa. Be it at a socio-economic, military, or political level; the US has traditionally, along with its European allies, been at the forefront of development in Africa. The United States’ involvement has, over many decades, been steady.

Under the two US administrations prior to that of President Trump, the cooperation between Africa and the United States was given greater impetus. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was, for example, introduced by President Clinton, and President Obama is noted for, amongst others, his Power Africa and Proper Africa programmes. However, under the Trump administration, a pause was experienced.

In the meantime, China has, especially over the last few decades, been steadily, and successfully, increasing its involvement with Africa. This has developed to the point where it is now Africa’s largest trading partner, a position that is causing some discomfort amongst those powers that have traditionally been the main development partners of Africa. The Trump hiatus, undoubtedly, created a vacuum, and thus an opportunity, for China to rapidly expand its relationship with Africa. Many may argue that this expansion has been at the expense of the US’s interests on the continent.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the US and China, at a global level, deteriorated under the Trump administration, at an alarming rate. This meant that Africa was, in a sense, caught between the two global power centres. On the one hand, it wants to maintain its relationship with the US and Europe, whilst on the other, it is enthusiastically expanding its relationship with China. How this dichotomy will ultimately play out on the African continent, remains to unfold.

Under President Trump, China had an almost unfettered advantage, in that, whilst the then US administration was insulting the continent, and even though the US did not abandon Africa – aid and investment continued – enthusiasm for nurturing and expanding its traditional relationships waned.

Now there is a new administration in Washington and President Biden has indicated a return to normal diplomacy under his watch. This article attempts to interpret the impact that this return to normalcy will have on Africa and China, and how it interconnects in Africa.

US-Africa relationship reset and the Chinese nexus

Traditionally, the US played an active role on the African continent: politically, economically, and militarily, especially in former British colonies. Under the Trump administration this relationship declined somewhat. All the while, China has seized the opportunities opening in Africa and has over the last few decades been steadily advancing its interests on the continent. The vacuum presented by the previous US administration has served to boost China’s influence.

Chinese relations reflect its own social organisation and ways of economically engaging individual African states, in large measure, by taking into account local conditions. Without fanfare and reaching quiet accomplishment, their slogan is ‘Peaceful Development’. Previously it had been ‘Peaceful Rising’.

The incoming Biden administration recognizes that the Trump era and its attitude towards Africa requires a dramatic correction of US policy across all 55 continental states. Indeed, Africa was relegated to near last among other regions, pushed by a past presidential disinclination to consider it relevant; and to only be responsive where competitor nations, such as China or Islamic fundamentalists, were perceived to be working a reversal of US economic efforts.

Prestige profiling of Americanism occasionally brought out responses. Gratuitous insults from the White House about core African worthiness also worked to reduce the US’s standing. This ill-feeling has receded among Africans and their leaders since Trump left office and now that Biden is taken to be the forerunner of an entirely different period, both in style and substance. Biden’s slogan is ‘America is Back’, alluding to the normal run of diplomacy as the chief driver of foreign policy. Being more rational and predictable, this is reassuring to Africans.

Biden wants to enhance the Obama legacy, through first a rebuild and then an extension. AGOA is one economic mode that bears watching. It seems unlikely to be renewed in its present form. Biden and Congressman Gregory Meeks, Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, will, in all probability, substitute AGOA with a new preferential African import access into the US markets programme. The debate evolves around the exclusion mechanism, for example barring Rwanda over used clothes sales from China, and commercially unfair price undercutting, which is working against resentful and displeased US businesses. Currently, AGOA, has a limited reach in that it, in the main, helps Botswana and South Africa. In contrast, China’s preferential loan regime operates with less stringent conditions, such as fiscal reform requirements and prescribed human rights conduct, with over forty African states.

Military dimensions

On assuming office, Trump had over six thousand Special Forces deployed across Africa. He drove a reduced presence after the death of an operator in Niger in 2017. Biden would likely be confronting a worsening security situation with Islamist fundamentalists actively engaged in five countries: Sinai in Egypt as a key Middle Eastern ally; the Maghreb where France is confronting Al Qaeda; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the ADF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Al-Shabaab (ASWJ) in northern Mozambique. China has no known anti-Islamist Jihadi role at present.

The role of Private Military Companies (PMC) is a complicating factor for the Biden policy teams as past administrations have made extensive use of them in Afghanistan and Iraq. The recent Amnesty International report from a respected human rights organisation, on one PMC assisting local police in Mozambique against an Islamic insurgency affiliated with global ISIS, brought on a condemnation by John Godfrey, interim counterterrorism coordinator, in that “Private groups make the fight against terrorism less transparent by self-regulating ‘outside international structures’". In the event the PMC has left the country, a firmed-up position from Washington DC is needed. China has security companies, and where they may deploy into Africa in support of governments, friction will likely occur.

Driving US policy on China and Africa

Policy and its formulations in the United States happens in closed rooms across Washington DC. On foreign policy it is the committees of the Deputy Under-Secretaries of State, and the Africa Bureau within the State Department, comprising the country desks manned in that Department, which are pivotal. Participants are usually State Department career staffers with academic and diplomatic posting experience.

Their product, tasked effort or matters arising from the course of events, passes to the Under-Secretary of State for Africa, onward to the Secretary and his staff, where a regular weekday, late morning meeting of principles, thrash out priorities. The fruits of such deliberations pass onward to the President in written briefing reports. Personal interaction between the Secretary of State and the President, outside of Cabinet meetings, allows priorities to be evaluated into a direction the Chief Executive prefers or raises himself.

Under Trump, the antagonism toward China was largely caused by the tariff trade war. Africa was a remoter consideration. China in Africa got noted occasionally, but rarely part of the clash with Beijing. The Pentagon, and the US Navy in particular, stood against Chinese expansion of the latter’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific in general. Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s intention to establish five naval bases in Africa (in the Seychelles, Tanzania, Djibouti, Angola, and another in West Africa), was, to the US, alarming. It is worthy to note that China has eclipsed the US in having the world’s largest blue-water fleet navy. And there are US concerns relating to China’s expanding missile arsenal and Eastern Pacific submarine deployments.

Global balance of power appears to be tipping away from the west, and Africa has noticed. These military concerns remain and will be present during the Biden Presidency, as it does in the Central Intelligence Agency under Biden appointee, Director William Burns, who, in a speech in mid-March 2021, set out China as the foremost US peer competitor. Biden would have signed off on this orientation.

Under Biden, some working assumptions of competitiveness with China will remain as part of a logic that cannot be defied, but the method and managed perceptions of deployed policy, will be dramatically different. A changed mix of form and substance is expected. Africans will have to evaluate whether they buy into it, by considering how it affects them, on a case-by-case basis.

Legacy complications

President Biden will need to confront diplomatic facts on the ground created by his predecessor; a glaring example is the status of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. The issue had led to Morocco leaving the African Union, a body President Obama respected, and Trump effectively ignored. In the final days of the Trump presidency, he brought this Arab state into recognition of Israel. The critiques of Rabat stalling on implementation of the American Baker Plan faded, yet the issue remains. China endorses the implementation of the Baker plan. The opportunity exists for the US and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, to together, move to a solution via the proposed referendum for Western Saharans.

Changing US style and substance

The Biden first rule for foreign relations is that it should pursue a two-track approach to promoting US interests and values, the international and domestic, mutually reinforcing each other. The crunch comes down to how clashes and contradictions are managed. African matters that could likely trigger Congressional and media responses, will principally be environmental, trade, and human rights issues.

Engines of the US view on Africa

A general working assumption in the making of state policy around Washington DC is that many can contribute to its inception. These officials do so through advancing and defending their own positions, even though they may well not be adopted in the end. But once policy has been set down, it becomes the line to adhere, unless the President or Secretary of State wishes a review.

The decided line is sacrosanct, and everyone gets behind it, even if staffers may have to fake enthusiasm occasionally. Understandably, being in the early days of the Biden presidency, the final, settled view is in transition itself, though it is rapidly firming up across issues.

China policy was among the first to be tackled on account of the US security establishment. Within the State Department, priority revolved around reassuring and re-establishing alliances (over forty treaties) ignored or shredded by the Trump White House. And regionally, Africa has gained new prominence, even greater than it enjoyed during the Obama years.

As it relates to the anticipated bearing on US-Africa relations, it is worthwhile noting the political realignment within the Executive and Legislative arms of the US:

  • Under Democratic political party control of both Houses of Congress, and the Presidency, three interacting points of original policy formulation exist, which can now be better coordinated into a more coherent international response, both in timing and in content. Trump was often in an uncivil war with his own state bureaucracy and the committees of the House of Representatives.

  • In the United States Congress, the pivotal foreign affairs portfolios are held by African-Americans. It can be expected that they will keenly drive African issues over many years. In the House of Representatives, Gregory Meeks (D-New York), a law graduate and former Assistant District Attorney in New York, is the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. This is a high profile and powerful committee. Its decisions often pass as strong recommendation to other committees such as Defence, Treasury and Homeland Security. Trade relations often have their birth here, to be implemented elsewhere.

  • Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-California), a health science graduate, serves on the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights. She is also Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bass was seriously discussed as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Biden also considered her for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but she declined.

The new US approach to Africa

Spotlight diplomacy

According to the House Foreign Relations Chairman, Gregory Meeks, the US needs a more robust US presence across the continent. Policy should not be an echo chamber as before: agencies around Washington DC need to feed their views into the same roundabout of policy formulators. He now foresees within Africa, collaboration on shared challenges and that Africans are to be at the forefront of the Biden relationship with the continent. “Africa is to be brought to the front burner’’ under his chairmanship of the committee. His novel conceptualization is that there will be a greater emphasis on promoting people-to-people exchanges, so as to enhance understanding and shared respect for common values.

Meeks explicitly stated that Biden and Congress’s approach is to be a new one, not the Trump view of seeing the continent in terms of being a terrain for global competition between themselves and China. This approach will indeed hold globally.

Meeks makes plain he will be working hand in hand with Karen Bass, who heads the Africa Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. Diplomats engaging with her since Biden assumed office, find that it appears China has to date not featured much, whilst Russia seems higher on the agenda.

Understanding and shared respect for common principles

Congressman Meek’s first public event as chairman of the committee was on Africa. This was purposeful. He acknowledged that the US has considerable work ahead in repairing its relationship with Africa. And that restoring moral credibility and reputation should be the goal. To do this, the relationship needs to be elevated, not isolated as under the previous administration.

Collaborative effort with shared benefit: the new baseline

Under the new administration the US will continue to advocate authentic democratic principles and values, which they aim to transmit through policy guiding their relationship with international counterparts, the goal being a commitment from both sides to democratic principles, the same as exist “back home here in the USA”. Meeks cites as examples: dealing with police violence, poverty expansion and social discontent within a democratic dispensation across his own country. Against this, the domestic regime of each African state, given their own specific local conditions, will be examined, and critiqued, in order to move towards the US’s interpretation of authentic democratic practice.

Control of both Houses of Congress, and the Presidency, allows the Democratic Party to redefine its foreign relations unhindered, which will clearly portray to the world that “the US is back at the table”. This is especially true of Africa, which, to a large extent, was marginalized under the previous administration.

Bass and Meeks say the US needs to move away from the Trump administration’s record of reducing countries to pawns in the prejudiced great power game with countries such as China and Russia. This was particularly true in the case of Africa. From Meeks’ perspective this was insulting, as it assumes Africans have no agency to affect and be affected by foreign affairs.

Transcending traditional public policy

The future relationship under Biden is to be collaborative. While advocating democratic principles, reluctant transition of power in some African countries sometimes makes it difficult, as did the transition in the USA from Trump to Biden. Persuading the international community to be transparent and to protect human rights, depends on the US’s own credibility, and its ability to convince the world that it is able to rise above its own problems, challenges, and inevitable setbacks, in this regard.

Climate change

Desertification, potable water declines and the risk of poor food security, affects the stability of polities. This is the main linkage that Meeks makes under climate change. To him ‘think global, act local’ requires a planetary effort. The US’s return to the Tokyo climate change protocol, and it is re-joining of the Paris climate accord, is a central tenet of the Biden presidential programme. In his view, congressional Republicans and Democrats hold the position that China is the biggest atmospheric polluter. They are of the view that through the US’s re-joining of the international efforts, reversing global escalation of temperatures, and unpredictable weather events, is achievable.

African Urban Development Initiative

President Biden, during his electoral campaign, committed his administration to the planning of an urban development initiative, in crucial areas, such as energy access, transportation, and water management. Meeks wants to codify this into an “African Urban Development Initiative”. It is likely that Meeks was informed by Biden’s exposition on the idea in the first place. Here, increased competition between the US and China in Africa can be expected. China, who has built over 150 new cities, leads the world in this regard and has already aided the building of African cities in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

Culture and US soft power

Congressman Meeks wants to use the concept of cultural heritage and its preservation to advance US foreign policy. Using the soft power of America’s creation and entertainment industries, such as Hollywood, and cross pollination of music and the sports, are his explicit examples. To illustrate, he cites collaboration between the National Basketball Association and the African Basketball League.

African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA)

Created by President Clinton, and already extended for a further ten years, Chairman Meeks seems to be opting to move beyond AGOA by reworking previous administration programmes such as Power Africa and Prosper Africa. He believes that economic engagement should start with the US’s wholehearted support for the African Continental Free Trade Area. He has mooted a number of suggestions, such as the provision of technical support for the trade dispute resolution mechanism. This could be done through the African Union (AU) secretariat, or multilateral mechanisms such as the African Developments Bank’s legal support facility and/or through setting up trade mediation courts based within the regional economic communities. Such assistance is being considered at three levels, namely government, private companies, and the regional economic communities.

Meeks envisages a “post AGOA” US-Africa relationship as not being one-sided. Investing in the development of digital networks across the continent, for example, should be done in collaboration with African technology companies. Such formalized support with Africa’s technology sector, would counter the current domination by Chinese companies, such as Huawei. The path of partnerships with African technology companies, incubators and educational institutions involved in the emergent technology sector, needs to be followed in order to create an environment for the building of digital capacity for young Africans.

Another important focus has to be US support for a STEM education (mathematics and science) initiative (falling between universal basic education and the TAYI higher programme), so as to enable the African youth to become more integrated in the global economy. He cites, as a way in which the US could become involved: mid-career US corporate professionals should be identified and tasked. They could then be deployed to local African enterprises for a six-month placement, during which time they would be making crucial skills transfer. So too, American educational institutions could bring expertise in online content with continental partners.

To achieve this, it is proposed that the US International Finance Corporation play a more active role than it has to date.

African diaspora

The growing and well-educated African diaspora in the US will be leveraged to enhance US-Africa cooperation. To this end, entrepreneurship and transnational connectivity will be prioritized. Similarly, the US could act as a coordinator to bring about Trans-Atlantic connectivity between Africa and Latin America, where there is also a sizeable African diaspora. The US would want to aid the establishment of the great African cultural museum, which is included in the AU’s Agenda 2063. The museum is to be developed in order to promote appreciation of Africa’s heritage and its vast and dynamic artifacts, music culture and language and its continuing effects on world culture.

A larger diplomatic presence

The US recognizes that it will fail to be relevant if it does not participate in bilateral and multilateral forums. Presently in several US embassies there are insufficient staff, whilst USAID is often also not present in the country. This lack of a presence can lead to imbalances, when, for example, the Defense Department cannot surge personnel through AFRICOM in order to address emergent needs. In order to avoid US views only being known in capital cities, the priority is to expand across all posts, civilian appointees, and to also staff rural consulates, such as Goma (DRC), Kano (Nigeria) and Mombasa (Kenya). This, it is believed, will build perspectives across all population sectors.

US diplomatic structural adaptions

Meeks and Bass aim to introduce team formations capable of meeting transnational challenges. These will be dedicated country teams comprising representatives drawn from the departments of state, commerce, and defense, and USAID, who are to be stationed at the African regional economic communities, for example the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC). The work of these formations will have distinct tasking and are to be separate from the bilateral formal diplomacy.

US Military in Africa

Meeks and Biden share the thinking that there needs to be a “hard look” at the US military’s role on the African continent. The thinking suggests that regional peace and security should be framed through the lens of democracy, good government, and human rights. As such, US security partnerships should be with those African countries that hold free, fair, and credible elections and where local security forces do not perpetuate state sponsored violence against their citizens (such as recent allegations against President Museveni’s win in Uganda over Bobby Wine, who was detained).

The current training of African militaries in humanitarian law (war law) is likely to continue.

The US is of the view that upstream poverty prevention assists in preventing conflict and that it is key to hold back undemocratic impulses by security establishments. Improved civilian oversight of the military is equally important. To this end, they consider partnerships with civil society organizations, legislatures, and the media, as a means to achieve this. It will, they believe, prevent credible threats to the American homeland in the longer run. The Global Fragility Act will be deployed to reframe the current security stance towards African crises. They have set as a 2030 goal, the reduction by half, the number of chronically unstable African countries.

Concerted action at goal achievement

Much of the above Meeks-agenda, tracks initiatives yet untried by the United States, but which are already implemented by the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) initiatives.

Surveying and organizing, in a humanitarian way, is a central tenet of the US policy aimed at making gains across Africa. They believe their strongpoint to be their global leadership position, and their ability to mobilize multi-national responses to crises. Of course, they need to be aware that immodesty could well lead to resentment.

The three influential Biden advisors: Nicole Wilett, Alison Lombardo and Michael Battle, are credited with helping shape US-African policy. They are well regarded as cogent on African affairs; in that they are well equipped with African research experience. They were formative in the emerging policy with the Democrats in Congress. In contrast, Trump’s African brains trust appears to have been his son and son-in-law who had gone big game hunting in Zimbabwe. Lombardo is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization, Battle has re-joined Duke University, and Willet is with the Open Society in New York City. The latter two continue to play an important informal role in shaping US foreign policy, although they were not taken up into the Administration.

Melding domestic policy with foreign policy

For the incoming Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, the problem of moving away from Trumpian positions, as he acknowledged at his first Senate appearance, is that not all of the former President’s policies need be reversed (such as the Bureau of Industry and Security). Furthermore, simply re-joining international institutions will, on its own, not be enough to restore confidence in American participation.

China’s close ties with Africa present a similar problem. Already economic sanctions and movement restrictions against one hundred of Zimbabwe’s ruling party were renewed by Biden at the beginning of March 2021. Coincidentally, the European Union had done so one week earlier. Zimbabwe’s elites may be personally inconvenienced, but they are unlikely to be toppled when a Chinese veto at the UN Security Council is ready to shield them.

Biden is also heir to several other Trump initiatives, such as the International Corporation of China, which was placed atop of a list of Chinese firms blocked from access to US electronics with potential dual use applications.

But US-China relations under Biden will shift from a zero-sum approach to one that is competitive, cooperative and contested. The semiconductor manufacturing and supply of rare earth minerals (REMs) are prime examples of China’s strategic access to resources and its monopoly in world production. It is therefore likely that the US will focus on areas in which they are competitive. This will undoubtedly include technology, rule-setting and diplomatic influence.

Rule-setting for China will be hard to achieve, as China, under Xi Jinping, will not be a rule taker under a Rules Based International Order (RBIO). So too, diplomatic influence will have its primary thrust through Congress; and in the case of Africa, it will be the Meeks-Bass duo driving the Biden African agenda.

Blinken is expected to adhere to Biden’s diplomatic imperative which is informed by what makes the American people and workers more secure, prosperous, and hopeful. Events, such as Covid-19, posited as having its origin in China, while Beijing benefits the most from supplying vaccines faster than the US; and allegations of systemic human rights abuse in Western China, straight-jackets America into a firm stand against China.

For Blinken, there are two possible responses: First, an export regime is emplaced so that no American technologies that might be used in repression domestically are exported to China, and secondly, no merchandise produced under repressive Chinese labour conditions should be allowed into the US. The Biden administration would also encourage allies and friends to do the same.

African states that incur the same kinds of displeasure could face similar treatment. Already African states with legal systems unfavourable to sexual minorities have been warned by Biden: Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Malawi. African states, of course, perceive this as intrusion into sovereign political affairs, where none can be tolerated.

China makes no such demands.

The US and China meld: Values with interests - Rapture vs Rupture

China, for the Biden Administration remains the main international peer competitor and will remain so for decades to come. A reformulated approach is in the making. Tony Blinken, Secretary of State, puts it as a “realignment preferable to rupture”. Not Trumpian in the least.

The central tenet of the American and European global governance is a mantra: Rules Based International Order (RBIO). China is portrayed by them to be maverick, often outside RBIO, wild and irresponsible, unsettling, and disruptive. Hence notions floating in the new administration, and which have gained ground, are that China’s role in the World Trade Organisation is counterproductive. China’s status designation as a developing nation, according to them, has to be reviewed.

The US Treasury, traditionally, has been counter poised against the Pentagon. Treasury prefers trade and chokes upon tariffs. It rigorously opposes them, with exceptions such as organised criminal enterprise, fiscus mismanagement and unlawful stock market manipulations. Increased goods and services serve a tax base yield they welcome. Janet Yelland, as the Biden appointee, is not belligerent, but does act decisively when reason beckons, such as the reimposition during early February 2021 of personal and corporate sanctions on an Israeli diamond mogul in Africa, that had been lifted by Trump.

US-Europe-China competing for influence in Africa

In the diplomatic and economic rush into Africa, the United States, France, and the UK, are China's main competitors. China surpassed the US in 2009 to become the largest trading partner of Africa. Bilateral trade agreements have been signed between China and 40 countries of the continent. In 2000, China-Africa trade amounted to 10 billion USD and by 2014, it had grown to 220 billion USD. It peaked in 2015 and the latest data suggests 2019 was 192 billion USD. China expends more effective effort in courting African states and elites, secures more resources and is highly influential through the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

Seven-point upgrade of FOCAC

China defines eight major initiatives with Africans, namely (i) industrial promotion, (ii) infrastructure connectivity, (iii) trade facilitation, (iv) green development, (v) capacity building, (vi) health care, (vii) people-to-people exchange, and (viii) peace and security.

A corrective seven-point plan is now to be put forward in 2021. Africans, it appears however, do not see intense industrialization after the Chinese model as a solution. Global competition between industrialists is, however, unlikely to yield disruptive results, given that China has the biggest industrial base worldwide in any event.

Intellectual knowledge business, agricultural expansion, tourism, and mining are the conceptual paths towards continental development that African states are converging around. The European Union favours this route over the Chinese proposal on industrialization as the main vehicle for African GDP growth.

The US tends to view industrialization as useful when its companies can produce cheaper abroad than they can back home, especially when healthy tax benefits are thrown into the mix. A prime example is Ford Motor Corporation’s 2021 1,05 billion USD investment in its South African manufacturing operations. It is a private-public partnership with all three spheres of government in the South African executive capital (Tshwane) Automotive Special Economic Zone (TASEZ). The Department of Trade and Industry’s Automotive Investment Scheme, no doubt, played a role triggering the investment. The US Government does not actively steer business abroad for its private companies, and from Beijing’s view, China, via overarching “whole nation effects”, in a sense, sees itself as a business in itself and extensively assists Chinese companies.

Potential for US-China collaboration in Africa

Foremost, both countries should accept a working presence alongside each other – without interference – while in free competition under local law. With Congressman Gregory Meeks this is settled as the way to go. US companies will nonetheless continue, rightly or wrongly, to feel disadvantaged against their Chinese competitors, which they allege enjoy uncompetitive state subsidy and support, with, for example, EXIM bank and others.

Mutual support work may take time to build. The chief impediment is discrepant national systems of civil administration and infrastructure building assumptions (national standards from food and agriculture to road and construction codes) and, most of all, national culture, the ultimate determinant. Person-to-person engagements therefore remain the best initial approach, which will undoubtedly lead to a greater chance of success. It is less complicating.

Similarly, in the field of US/China policing and military liaison, the focus should be on building lower level working trust among themselves and their African host nations, especially since longer term joint effort seems unlikely at higher levels, given the US National Security posture and contingency plans that continue to factor China as the prime military threat.

In this vein, world events remain highly unpredictable. Real and imagined slights upon either state’s prestige by the other can never be excluded. Escalation by military error or miscalculation can bring on crises. Because the US and China find themselves increasingly in close proximity on land across Africa, de-escalation mechanisms at political and military levels should be well functioning between themselves and the African Union.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned challenges, it is submitted that outside of public view, a number of problems that pose concerns to both the US and China, can be jointly worked on. These include issues such as:

  • International policing actions on narcotic and environmental smuggling. Joint police training and military joint interdiction of West Indian Ocean narcotics routes from Pakistan to Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

  • Emergency and humanitarian disaster relief coordination (droughts, tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions). This should include sea and air lift capacity.

  • Inter-operability (Chinese and NATO standards) development of doctrine and training for national militaries confronting insurgencies, especially those affecting mining and civil construction and electricity transmission, which is a serious threat in parts of Africa. Lower-level military formations (tactical and operational) are less constrained by doctrines that hold at the national strategic level. There could be some flexibility and adaptation for joint cooperation when pursuing counter insurgency actions such as dhow interdiction in the eastern Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

  • Across the five Islamist insurgencies in Africa mentioned earlier in this article, both sides could provide logistical and material support, including humanitarian training, tactical support, and platoon weaponry.

  • Coordinate greater coherence in adopting international positions on African problems in the Security Council of the United Nations, within a framework of closer consultation with the AU. Biden has signalled AU relevance in an open speech of congratulation on the 34th sitting in February 2021. This gesture got appreciative acknowledgement from a number of African Heads of State, particularly Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo (chair) and South Africa (former chair).

The regular new year’s tour to at least three African capitals by senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials gets attention on the continent. The US also stages occasional visits by administration officials. Biden has hope of attending the 35th AU General Assembly in 2022. If this happens, it would be a significant departure by a US President towards Africa on par with Obama’s visit to Cairo, which aimed to realign with the Muslim world. (Later drone strikes on Arab countries reversed much of this Obama effort, so Biden would need to come with more than solidarity wishes and declared empathy).

China places less emphasis on grand gestures, preferring the gradual development of people-to-people contacts informed by its overarching plan.


Africa has, in the main, for many decades now, enjoyed a long and rewarding relationship with the US. Over the last few years, under a belligerent Trump administration, the Africa-US rapport paused. Under the new Biden administration’s “America is back” approach, it is expected that the relationship between the US and Africa will correct and expand. In a sense, the relationship will return to that of the pre-Trump era.

Concurrently, the relationship between Africa and China has been steadily growing, to the extent that China has now become Africa’s biggest trading partner, is a significant investor on the continent, and commands meaningful political sway. Through FOCAC it has an entrenched channel for coordinating its activities within Africa. In this, it has been immensely successful. One conclusion that can be drawn from this article is that whilst Africa is eager to have its relationship with the US normalised, it is simultaneously unwilling to relinquish its bond with China.

As the US rebuilds its relationship with Africa, it will have to adjust its approach, cognisant of the reality that the relationship will have to co-exist with Africa’s relationship with China. They will need to position themselves as a competitor for trade, investment, and political cooperation. This article concludes that the competition need not be adverse for the continent, in that it compels the two powers to moderate their competition to their individual advantage, with a concomitant spill-over benefit for the continent.

An equally important conclusion is that whilst positioning for advantage, new opportunities, be they militarily, policing against narcotics, emergency, and humanitarian relief, amongst others, are opening up for trilateral collaboration between Africa, the US and China.

This article urges an earnest consideration in this regard. Such a multilateral approach will serve Africans best.

Information sources

This opinion has been developed through interviews and consultations with senior members of the incoming Biden administration and US Congress, open-source materials, former members of US State Department, African ambassadors, and think-tanks. None of the views expressed here are necessarily an attributable, declared position of the foregoing.

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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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