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Author: Daryl Swanepoel
The US-China-Africa nexus
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When President Joe Biden assumed office in January 2021, analysts attempted to predict how the relationship between the United States of America (US) and Africa would unfold under his administration. The relationship needed some healing given the decline in rapport between the two sides under the previous Trump administration, where the US’s “relations with the continent flitted between perfunctory and hostile” (Thomas, 2021).
The US foreign relations decline under the previous administration, was not restricted to Africa. Across the globe this held true. It was, however, especially severe between the US and China, where it turned into a direct trade-war confrontation between them (BBC, 2020).
All the while, the US has suggested that China’s growing influence in Africa poses a growing threat (Associated Press, 2021), leaving African leaders with the quandary: How to respond to the US-China nexus as it plays out on the African continent?
Analyses directly after the Biden administration’s assumption of office was that, broadly speaking, there would be a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US, China and Africa. In this regard, general consensus was that the Biden administration would build on and deepen the pre-Trump initiatives as they relate to Africa, and that they would take a keener interest in Africa. Similarly, the contestation with China would remain, especially as it relates to trade and human rights; but the narrative will be more civil and competitive as opposed to the combative approach taken by the previous administration.
To date there have been mixed signals. Whilst the Biden administration has “reaffirmed the desire for collaboration and cooperation with China in areas that serve American interests, in sharp contrast to the ‘all-encompassing decoupling’ policy toward China in the final year of the Trump administration” (Cheng, 2021), US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, as late as May 2021, accused China of acting more aggressively (BBC, 2021), and some analysts are now suggesting that the US is even opening up new fronts in the trade war with China (Miller, 2021).
What to expect going forward? Questions remain: How is US policy on Africa shaping up? And likewise, how is their approach to China being moulded? How should African countries, who wish to retain good relationships with both sides, respond to the dynamics as they play out on the African continent and how should they position themselves to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes?
This paper, in an attempt to find answers to the questions posed, summarises the dialogue on the theme of this paper. The dialogue between a range of academics and policy analysts, drawn from both the United States and Africa, took place in late June 2021.
Through the lens of African analysts
In a sense, the jury is still out as to what the Biden administration is going to do with regard to its foreign policy towards Africa. It is fair to say that despite the commitments made during the presidential campaign and what has happened subsequently, Africa remains anxious as to what the Biden policies will hold for the continent. It is also fair to say that following the benign disinterest of the previous administration, African leaders are keen to understand what the new approach to Africa will hold (Grobler, 2021).
Obviously, following the lows of the Trump era, a unique opportunity presents itself for the United States to improve the relationship visibly and concretely between the US and Africa. The negative dispersions of the previous US president towards Africa, the fact that he did not visit the continent and his failure to support the former Nigerian Finance Minister for the post of Secretary General of the World Trade Organisation, are all examples that served to strain US-Africa relations. The Biden administration can correct and rectify this (DIRCO, 2021; Grobler, 2021).
Echoing this is the assertion that at this time in 2017, four years lay ahead under a Trump administration, which saw US-Africa relations reach its lowest ebb. There is a definite sense that the US could have done more during those years. However, what we are now going through is a normalisation of relations between the two sides (Weseka, 2021).
The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) seem to agree. It is of the view that the inauguration of President Biden has not only set the stage for a reset of the South Africa-United States (US) bilateral relationship, but also for a fresh approach by the US in its relationship with the African continent. They say that President Biden has since his inauguration taken decisive steps to move the US away from the nationalist, confrontationist and unilateralist “America First” policies of the Trump Administration. It has sent strong signals that Africa will be accorded greater priority in US foreign policy (DIRCO, 2021).
So, in a sense, there has been a quiet return to normality, and business as usual – the period under the previous administration was an anomaly. It is now a continuation and a return to the policies under the Obama and Bush administrations. The continent has generally appreciated these efforts (Weseka, 2021).
It remains to be seen as to whether there will be concrete US economic interest, strongly focussing on trade and investment with the continent, or whether it will be business as usual. Six, seven months into the new administration, there are some green shoots. The fact that Biden has appointed a few very experienced officials that know Africa, such as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the US representative to the United Nations, bodes well for US-Africa relations. Moreover, a well-regarded University of the Witwatersrand academic and US analyst said that Thomas-Greenfield worked with China on joint projects on the ground when she was stationed on the continent. Hopefully, she will serve as an advocate for Africa and possibly for a more sensible US policy towards China. And Mary Catherine Phee – an old hand as it relates to Africa – who has been nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, engenders hope, in that they would be strong advocates for a more strategic relationship with Africa (Grobler, 2021; Weseka, 2021).
The fact that a number of Nigerian-Americans have also now been appointed to senior positions in the Biden administration bodes well for a fresh approach, as does the codification of Juneteenth as a public holiday in the US, as this will bring new insights into the political discourse (Weseka, 2021).
There have been many statements on Africa: President Biden’s virtual address to the African Union (AU) Summit, positive decisions on US’s re-joining of the World Health Organisation and COVAX, all of which were well received and welcomed by Africa (Grobler, 2021; Weseka, 2021). What Africa would now want to see is a US that is pursuing a calculated high level dialogue strategy and to develop a clear comprehensive bi-partisan long-term vision for its US-Africa policy (Grobler, 2021).
DIRCO also views Biden’s address to the 34th Summit of the African Union on 4 February 2021 as an indication of the US’s willingness to re-engage with the Continent. In his address, for example, Biden made it clear that the United States stands ready to be a partner of Africa in solidarity, support and mutual respect (DIRCO, 2021).
The department also points to discussions between the leaders of South Africa and the United States, where President Biden, once again, expressed the need to engage on matters such as the strengthening of US-South Africa and US-Africa relations, as well as the importance of international solidarity to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic (DIRCO, 2021).
The recent indication of support from the Biden Administration for the TRIPS Waiver initiative that is being championed by South Africa and India at the WTO is a further indication of a changed posture towards Africa, especially given the Administration’s willingness to now alter its stance, as it was initially opposed to the request for a temporary waiver (DIRCO, 2021).
Although details of the Biden Administration’s Africa policy will only become clearer over time, the Chair of the US House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Congresswoman Karen Bass, has underlined three key issues: (a) US support for the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), (b) the undertaking by the Biden administration to extend AGOA beyond 2025, and (c) the proposed convening of a US-Africa Summit (DIRCO, 2021). This will help immensely with the challenges confronting the continent, including issues such as industrialisation, infrastructure and human resource development (Grobler, 2021).
In terms of this proposed strategy, Africa would hope for the US to constructively support the AU Agenda 2063, which is a commendable attempt by African leaders to get Africa to speak with one voice (Sonjica, 2021).
The Biden administration inherits important mechanisms and initiatives, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), Prosper Africa, which aims to link US and African business in terms of trade and investment, and AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (which expires in 2025), which was established to encourage and support trade between the US and Africa (Grobler, 2021).
DIRCO concurs. They argue that a common understanding and alignment is developing between the US and Africa pertaining to trade and investment, and indeed other areas such as the environment, science and technology, education, the fight against climate change and cybercrime, and public health. In this regard, an important recent development has been the US’s joining of other countries in offering support to help South Africa strengthen its capacity for the local manufacturing of vaccines (DIRCO, 2021).
These matters are going to be key elements for the Biden administration, who will now have to chart a new way forward. They may have to go beyond AGOA, and also rethink their strategy for US-Africa relations, which will have to be much broader and much more strategic (Grobler, 2021).
For the US to be regarded as a valued partner, it will be important for it to consult African countries on the continent’s developmental needs when designing its Africa policy, particularly in the current context of the US-China strategic competition for political influence and economic dominance, and the current status quo, where China is significantly investing in the African continent through its bilateral partnerships and through the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) (DIRCO, 2021). Early evidence would suggest that there is hope that the US will move in such a direction (Grobler, 2021).
Through the lens of American analysts
There has been a shift in US-Africa relations, away from the fairly combative approach taken by the Trump administration (Sheehy, 2021). In the interim national security strategy, for example, when referring to Africa, the previous administration’s paradigms have been taken out and replaced with the bi-partisan themes as ensconced during the Bush and Clinton administrations (Snyder, 2021).
It says that the US will continue to build partnerships in Africa, invest in civil society and strengthen long-standing political, economic, and cultural connections. It will partner with dynamic and fast-growing African economies, provide assistance to countries suffering from poor governance, economic distress, health, and food insecurity, especially as exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The US, it says, will work to bring an end to the continent’s deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones, while strengthening their commitment to development, health, security, environmental sustainability, democratic progress, and the rule of law. It will help African nations combat the threats posed by climate change and violent extremism and support their economic and political independence in the face of undue foreign influence (Snyder, 2021).
Indeed, continuity, even expansion, of the policies of US agencies for development should be expected. For many years, the US has done a lot to help Africa in improving its health environment, and to empower women. This has saved many lives and should be appreciated. Now development agencies have submitted higher budget requests, so there will most probably be more resources available for these activities in Africa (Sheehy, 2021).
Also, programmes, such as Prosper Africa (Sheehy, 2021) – which aims to double two-way trade and investment between the US and Africa, attract capital and create millions of jobs (Snyder, 2021) – is expected to continue, although they most probably need more meat on the bones (Sheehy, 2021).
One can expect the deployment of resources made available by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to increase, since it has doubled its capacity and can therefore do more lending. The DFC has strong bi-partisan support, which is bound to see it become more engaged in Africa with support for investment by the US, and even other foreign companies (Sheehy, 2021).
There are clear indications that the US wants to get more involved with the combatting of climate change in Africa, which is a positive development given the severity of its impact on the continent. But at the same time, one of the critical issues facing the Biden administration is with respect to green issues. In this regard there are suggestions that the DFC should not support fossil fuel activity and thus some trimming of the DFC’s energy finance activities in Africa should be expected (Sheehy, 2021). The DFC has, for example, approved more than USD2 billion in environmental and energy projects in Africa, including a natural gas pipeline in Egypt, marine conservation in Kenya, and natural gas extraction in the Capo del Gado region of Mozambique (Snyder, 2021). An assessment will need to be made as to how such withdrawal will impact African economies; to which end, Africans will need to have their voices heard as to how they feel about it (Sheehy, 2021).
Another area that will require Africans to lobby the US, is the extension of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which expires in 2025. Whilst there are contrary views, there are a number of policymakers and analysts that have a sense that it should be extended, and even go beyond the current provisions. Their view is that the US should be very careful about taking away unilateral trade benefits from the poorest economies, and poorest countries. In fact, AGOA should be built on, they suggest, by, for example, extending the benefits to duty free and quota free access to US markets for agricultural products from Africa, such as peanuts, nuts and even cotton. Consideration as to AGOA’s future will require careful thought and deliberation, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a devastating effect on African economies (Sheehy, 2021).
Truth be told, however, is that the Biden administration is battling somewhat with figuring out its trade policy with Africa. Whilst the Trump administration preferred a bilateral approach, such as that which he sought with Kenya, this seems to have paused as the Biden administration figures it out. On this point, there has been some discussion at the US State Department about creating deal teams at US embassies across Africa to push the US’s commercial interests (Sheehy, 2021).
To this end, the US will undoubtedly be grappling with how to take advantage of the recently implemented African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest free trade area to be established since the founding of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and in which Africa intends to integrate its fragmented markets into a single market home to 1,2 billion people. By eliminating restrictions on the free movement of goods, capital and people, it will create an attractive opportunity for US companies to sell and invest in a combined consumer and business base of USD6,7 trillion by 2030. This is not a market that the US will ignore (Snyder, 2021).
Fortunate for US-Africa policy and relations, is that there are a number of strong pro-Africa appointees to the Biden administration. The USAID Director, Samantha Power, is, for example, quite powerful and well-regarded in Washington (Sheehy, 2021). She will henceforth also have an expanded role since she will also sit on the National Security Council. Power’s diplomatic career includes significant African experience and she has worked as a journalist reporting from a number of African countries including Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. The nomination of Power could very well see a revitalisation of USAID’s mandate in Africa following repeated cuts to the organisation’s budget under President Donald Trump (Thomas, 2021).
Similarly, Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been appointed as Ambassador to the United Nations. She has previously served as Ambassador to Liberia, and as the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs since 2013. And whilst the Assistant Secretary for Africa, Molly Phee, has a stronger Middle East background, it is known that she has strong links with Thomas-Greenfield (Snyder, 2021).
Equally important are the pro-Africanists in Congress and the Senate. The Chairman of the House Committee for Foreign Affairs, Gregory Meeks, has called for a new Africa policy, which he has made his top priority. His Africa subcommittee chair, Karen Bass, has long been a supporter of Africa. And in the Senate, Senator Chris Coons did not hesitate in answering the call to travel to Ethiopia to mediate the recent and currently ongoing Tigray conflict (Snyder, 2021).
These allies will be powerful voices to convey the African message. African diplomats should liaise regularly with these US counterparts, with a unique opportunity existing at the United Nations, as all African countries have diplomatic missions there (Snyder, 2021).
Another channel that the Biden administration will undoubtedly tap into in order to advance US-Africa relations, is the extensive African diaspora in the United States. As of 2015, there were 2,1 million African immigrants living in the US. One can envisage them partnering with the International Career Advancement Programme and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (Snyder, 2021).
But having pro-African appointees and allies does not mean that the US will be uncritical towards Africa. The Biden administration will definitely continue to promote a rules-based democratic and human rights world order (Sheehy, 2021). For Africa, the goal would be to advance democracy and governance, peace and security, trade and investment, and development (Snyder, 2021). On this matter, truthfully, it needs to be recognised that much of Africa is struggling, in that a number of African countries are not moving in the right direction. There is a real sense in the US that it has not been tremendously successful in realising democracy, human rights and good governance across Africa. Thought needs to be given as to how the US could be more successful on that front (Sheehy, 2021). Where there is inequality and poverty, democracy will suffer. One has often heard African leaders despair: Don’t tell me about democracy when my people are hungry (Sonjica, 2021). One tactic which may be expected, is for the US to be more supportive of civil society organisations that promote democracy and human rights (Sheehy, 2021).
The Biden administration will also place great emphasis on combatting corruption in Africa. There is, for example, growing interest in promoting transparency in the fight against corruption. In January 2021, the administration deployed the Magnitsky Act, by freezing the assets and placing travel restrictions on several Ugandan government officials and businesspersons, who were considered to have undermined free and fair elections in that country (Sheehy, 2021).
Then too, there is a security deficit in Africa. The US would want to coordinate more closely with the African Union, as they do, for example, with Europe. However, up until now that pull from Africa has not been there. This is an area worth considering given that both sides would benefit from such cooperation (Snyder, 2021).
Through the lens of African analysts
It was predicted that China would remain a political football in terms of US domestic politics. Americans expect President Biden, and indeed all their politicians, to be tough on China. It would therefore not be realistic to expect the Biden administration to change US-China policy dramatically. And this has now become evident. They are, more or less, pursuing the policy of the previous administration (Grobler, 2021).
The first post-Trump US-China engagement did not start on a good footing. Their first engagement in Alaska was confrontational. It seems the Chinese side was taken aback, and surprised by this. They had hoped that a more constructive approach, based on mutual respect, would have been adopted. That did not happen and the Chinese delegation, determined to safeguard its legitimate interests, promptly retaliated in a comprehensive and hard-hitting manner (Grobler, 2021).
The sense in China is that the US should realize that they do not represent the world and that they are no longer the undisputed global leader. And since they also anticipate to soon become the largest economy on earth, it is, in their view, only right for them to be approached with the necessary respect, in good faith and integrity. That said, China does not see itself as being in a long-term ideological struggle with the US. To the contrary, they have repeatedly stated that they are ready to engage the US on the basis of mutual respect and on the basis of good faith (Grobler, 2021).
But, in their view, this is not the case. President Biden laments the stiff competition with China, inferring that its ambition is to be the leading, wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. It seems, given President Biden’s retort that this would not happen on his watch, that the US’s view is that it is not noble for China to overtake the US (Grobler, 2021).
This notion is affirmed by the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, who says that, whilst it is not the US’s purpose to contain China, or to hold it back, or to keep it down, it is necessary for them to ensure that China upholds the US-led rules-based order, to which China is, according to him, posing a challenge (Grobler, 2021).
Needless to say, this does not sit well with China. In their view, they are a strong multilateral country, committed to multilateralism under the banner of the United Nations. Their commitment, China argues, is to multilateralism and not to the US-led rules-based order that represents a minority of the world’s people. The US’s approach, China senses, is unfortunately motivated by a sort of Cold War mentality (Grobler, 2021).
China is uncomfortable with the Biden administration’s push for a strong democratic alliance against them. The notion that the Western nations must present a more united front against China is not acceptable to them. China objects to bloc politics and small cliques targeting a certain country and playing up the ‘China threat’ narrative. They find solace in the fact that these nations are not unanimous on the issue. Countries such as France and Germany take the view that they need to continue to consult and cooperate with China, by working together on issues where they can agree, but also understanding that they will need to constructively oppose those issues that they cannot agree on (Grobler, 2021).
It is also unfortunate, some posit, that the US administration’s approach is exacerbated by the US Senate’s continued churning out of sanctions against China, since this is leading to a tit-for-tat as China responds with its own measures to combat the perceived onslaught (Grobler, 2021).
It is held that any measures aimed at containing China’s economic or diplomatic progress is destined to fail. Many argue that it is counter-productive and not in the interest of global economic growth and development, for the two major world powers to be on a destructive path. Many countries from across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa want to continue with a constructive engagement, relationship and economic cooperation with China. Whilst there may be obvious differences, for example developments in Hong Kong, evidence seems to suggest that the international community, in the interest of economic cooperation and peace, is eager to pursue the route of dialogue and cooperation as opposed to confrontation (Grobler, 2021).
And the potential for such cooperation does not exclude the US. There are many areas that are ripe for enhanced collaboration as well as harnessing their economic competitiveness in a manner that advances the interests of humanity (Grobler, 2021).
Yet, despite the current uncomfortable disposition between the US and China, hope remains that cool heads will prevail, and that as the dust settles, and as the US starts to engage China on multinational issues such as climate change and global economics, so too, good sense will prevail. That officials will again start talking to each other and that the bilateral mechanisms that fell by the wayside under the Trump administration will eventually be reactivated. As one analyst puts it: The US and China will never be beer buddies, but there is ample reason for the two sides to work together on the basis of mutual respect, non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and in the interest of global security and development (Grobler, 2021).
Through the lens of American analysts
The US position on China is informed by its interpretation of the historical developments within China.
According to them, China, over the period 1949-1989, that is up until the events of Tiananmen Square, broadly speaking, sought to redefine its national identity, industrialise, and secure the Communist Party of China (CCP) as the legitimate governing regime capable of filling the political, ideological and security vacuum left by the overthrowing of the Kuomintang (KMT), which thrust the country into turmoil (Stone, 2021).
After 1989, China made a strategic shift in which it committed itself to comply with international norms. President Deng Xiaoping was of the view that the country should hide its capabilities, rise peacefully and conform with international norms (Stone, 2021).
Then, in 2013, the US argue, there was a divergence from Deng’s policy, when President Xi Jinping assumed office. China would, under President Xi, no longer hide its capabilities from the international community, it would advance nationalism, restore its prestige and rise (Stone, 2021).
All the while, the US, together with its allies, were building a liberal international order, which would consist of international institutions, with rules that would guide relations among nation states and contend with non-state actors. These institutions include, amongst others, the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank. In their view the rules of these institutions were necessary to enhance predictability. States should follow these rules in that they offer outlets to conflict, and enforce principles of conduct. The US, together with its partners, accepted liberal democracy as a necessary dispensation to ensure a uniform liberal order. They work in tandem to ensure the spread of democracy around the world, promotion of capitalism and to integrate all states into this world order (Stone, 2021).
China’s military and economic rise, in the US’s view, challenge this international order, since the Chinese system is not compatible with the liberal order that America has embraced. The two systems of governance, and their respective national ambitions, both equipped with significant economic and military might, pretend a return to a type of Cold War once had between the Soviet Union and United States. Whether this is desirable, or inevitable, remains to be seen (Stone, 2021).
Against this background, the Biden administration are now also contending with a China that aims to reform the status quo in favour of their own interests, by replacing the US as the hegemon in the immediate sphere of China, that is East Asia and South-East Asia. The US also charge China of attempting to change the nature of the debate with regard to the liberal international order, because liberal values do not, the US protests, reinforce the Chinese priorities, both at home and abroad. State repression, mass detention, border conflicts with India, aggressive actions against Taiwan, cyber espionage, alignment with autocratic regimes – such as Iran, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan – a domestic social credit system, an absence of legal rights, inhibiting freedom of movement internally in China, are all, in the US’s view, antithetical of liberal ideals that are meant to manifest freedom of speech, justice, pluralism, and economic and security cooperation. Collectively, China’s military, economical, and political influence, and contrasting foreign and domestic priorities, the US contend, challenge the very nature of the liberal international order (Stone, 2021).
The US charge China of pursuing an integration doctrine, aimed at filling the vacuum left by the US since 2001 as a result of its campaign to combat international terrorism around the world, particular in the Middle East. Nation states can achieve such integration through three different means: compliance, coercion, conflict. This period, the US fears, is one of coercion, which could potentially lead to conflict (Stone, 2021).
The aforementioned, sketches the relationship that the Biden administration needs to manage. In doing so, the US and its international partners actively pursue a dual policy of compensation and cooperation aimed at sustaining the liberal international order (Stone, 2021). This it will do by:
Firstly, cooperating on issues of mutual concern, such as climate change, cyber security, and nuclear proliferation; and
Secondly, reaffirming the rules of the road, and insisting that access to international institutions and their benefits are given only to those that meet the prescribed standards of conduct, which at minimum prohibits genocide, nuclear proliferation, military aggression (unless in self-defence), and oppression in domestic affairs (Stone, 2021).
The Biden administration’s China policy is designed within the context of Americans being more concerned with domestic issues that are affecting their daily lives in the now. Moreover, the liberal international order, has, in the wake of the Cold War, borne out the good, bad and ugly results, that is the limitations of foreign interventions, open borders and disparity in collective security. The US and others sold to the world the idea that they would guard against these evils, and that capitalism would reduce inequality, yet it persists. In their wake, it has left a cry for nationalism (Stone, 2021).
Therefore, a third objective of the Biden administration is to, within the US, restore faith in the efficacy of the American model. Its focus is on investment in infrastructure and education, and a redefinition of ‘open system’ to include respect for borders and trade with dignity, and the raising of liveable standards to meet the cost of living (Stone, 2021). This forms the foundation of the US’s trade confrontation with China.
The US-China-Africa nexus
Through the lens of African analysts
Even though China considers itself a friend and partner of Africa, the current post-Covid era requires a less emotional and a more critical action-based approach and strategy. This practical and results-orientated policy approach has been institutionalised within the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which has embedded a close policy-based working relationship between the two sides. Indeed, it is expected that when FOCAC convenes in Senegal later this year, the relationship will most probably be taken to higher levels. It is not foreseen that this bond is about to change any time soon (Grobler, 2021).
Africa does not share the perspective that doing business with China is to its detriment. At the same time, it wants to continue building its relationship with the US. It wants to work with China and the US without having to take sides and again be caught up in a new Cold War situation. As such, Africa, in its own pragmatic interest, would like to see a process unfolding that would lead to the normalisation of relations between China and the US. Such a situation would be in the interest of Africa, but also for a stable world order, development and security (Grobler, 2021).
In fact, at the recent G7 meeting in the United Kingdom, President Ramaphosa, with reference to China, the US and Africa, made the constructive comment during the media conference, to the effect that Africa welcomes those who come on good terms and that the continent does not want to see the one pushing the other out (Grobler, 2021).
But one must also expect different approaches. For the US-Africa relations it is normal to anticipate change and continuity; whereas this would not be so in China-Africa relations. This is because of the different political systems that are at play. In the US, administrations frequently change after regular elections, where leadership priorities and policies are bound to vary. This it not so under the Chinese system which by its very nature ensures greater continuity. Hence, China-Africa relations are likely to display greater continuity than would be the case with US-Africa relations (Weseka, 2021).
Another point of distinction is the fact that Africa looks to the US and China for cooperation in different fields. For the US it would be for issues such as democracy, human rights, governance, etcetera. Much of this flows from their British and French colonial roots and its entrenched traditions, which civil society and political entities, whilst there could be some variances here and there, have embraced (Weseka, 2021).
This also holds true for issues of media and culture. African television viewers tend to watch CNN and/or BBC; very few watch CGTN. Same with newspapers. It is the New York Times, Washington Post, etcetera, not so much the People’s Daily. Many Africans grew up on Hollywood movies. Thus, in the fields of politics and culture, Africans are persuaded to go the American way (Weseka, 2021).
When it comes to the economy, the story changes quite dramatically. China overtook the US in 2009 to be Africa’s largest trading partner. This is aptly illustrated in the ICT and tech industries, where despite the Trump administration’s attempts to dissuade African countries away from Chinese 5G telecoms, African countries chose and are committed to Chinese-built telecom infrastructure and fibre optics. Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE, dominate the telecom infrastructure in Africa (Weseka, 2021).
As a side note, there is a real fear that the US-China tensions have the potential to impact the achievement of its economic and development targets, especially as this relates to investment in the communications and digital sectors, such as the roll-out of 5G technologies. In this regard, the US targeting of the Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, which is accused by the US of violating IP protections, could hamper South Africa and Africa’s effective engagement with – and leveraging of – the benefits of the 4th Industrial Revolution, which it is relying on to propel their economies forward and to lessen the widening equality gap (DIRCO, 2021).
This sentiment is exacerbated by many in the West who push the narrative that African countries ought to be cautious with regard to the conditions that are attached to Chinese investment, and the toxicity and so-called debt traps that, according to them, comes with their funding (Weseka, 2021).
But African countries have not been dissuaded. They continue to look to China for such assistance, countering that the West cautions against Chinese funding, but is not forthcoming with the finance needed to build the roads, ports, and other economic infrastructure (Weseka, 2021).
To navigate the dual relationship, Africa will have to contemplate a more considered and coherent framework for its international approach. This will be necessary for it to maximise the opportunities presented by the US, China and others. It needs to be optimally positioned to exploit to its own and mutual benefit, the increasing number of opportunities being made available by the US and China, and indeed others as well. In developing concrete specific objectives, it would have to pursue its own homegrown solutions, ideally developed in concert with both China and the US (and others), who should ideally also align their policies with that of the AU’s Agenda 2063. The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area could, for example, serve as a powerful catalyst for trade and investment opportunities (DIRCO, 2021; Grobler, 2021).
In so doing, Africa will have to encourage both sides to engage in dialogue with a view of resolving the impasse. This will be necessary to effectively address Africa’s socio-economic deficits and for ensuring sustainable growth, development, and the eradication of poverty. The support of reliable international partners is required – in this case both the US and China (DIRCO, 2021).
Both countries are considered strategic partners, and hence, both can play an important role in supporting the achievement of Africa’s domestic imperatives. Consequently, both countries should be encouraged to resolve their differences through dialogue (DIRCO, 2021).
Mutual cooperation would not only have benefits for both of them, but indeed for the international community. And although US-China interests may diverge in many areas, there is scope for cooperation between the two countries, particularly in areas where their interests coincide. This includes the multilateral arena of climate change, and where the promotion of peace, security and development are concerned, issues that are also crucially important for Africans (DIRCO, 2021), to which end, it may be the opportune time to start triangular consultation and cooperation between Africa, the US and China (Grobler, 2021).
Through the lens of American analysts
In the early days of the Biden administration, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken made it clear that African countries would not be forced to choose between China or the US. There was a broad realisation that the Trump style of demanding that countries work with the US against China could not be followed. Such an approach is not popular with African leaders (Sheehy, 2021), who do not want to take sides, as was the case during the Cold War (Stone, 2021). They want the freedom to choose their own international cooperation partners. Also, given the depth and width of Chinese involvement and investment in Africa, it would not be a realistic path to pursue (Sheehy, 2021).
Nonetheless, the US will, in large measure, continue with US-China policies as inherited from the previous administration. As to the nexus in Africa, demand will be replaced with an element of persuasion, for example, with regard to information technology, where Chinese enterprises such as TEL are deeply engrained. Another approach could be a shift from diplomatic pressure to the offering of subsidies to countries that opt for Western technology – this approach was discussed at the G7 summit in the United Kingdom in June 2021. It is argued that from an African perspective this should be embraced, in that it presents to them a broader range of options. This, it is reasoned, is also in the interest of African development (Sheeny, 2021).
Stepping up US-Africa relations as a countering to China-Africa relations, the US accepts is no easy feat. There is a strong realisation that they are far behind China in Africa (Sheehy, 2021; Snyder, 2021) and that personal relationships matter. If one simply considers the sheer number of personal and diplomatic visits between the heads of states of Africa and China, China is putting the US foreign policy to shame. Then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, commented in an op-ed that the US is being outcompeted in Africa. It is hoped and anticipated that the Biden administration will invest in building personal relationships across the African continent (Sheehy, 2021). To counter, whilst President Biden has already addressed the 34th African Union Summit via video-conferencing in February 2021 (Grobler, 2021), it is anticipated that, at some point, he will visit the continent in person. During 2021 there will also be another US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. It is also expected that senior US government officials will increase their visits to the continent. They will undoubtedly use these opportunities to build and strengthen personal relationships between US and African leaders (Snyder, 2021).
The US has also fallen behind China in trade with Africa. As previously mentioned, China overtook the US in 2009 to become Africa’s largest trading partner (Weseka, 2021). Bilateral trade between the US and Africa during the period 2017-2018 rose from USD55 billion to USD61 billion, dwarfed by China whose bilateral trade with Africa rose from USD155 billion to USD185 billion over the same period. The US will deploy various strategies, including those cited in this article, to play catch-up. This it believes it can do, if focussed, as trade is something that the US does well (Snyder, 2021).
It should also be recognised that China has taken a march forward with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Snyder, 2021). Research conducted on the BRI in various places, shows that political acceptance levels for Chinese investments are high. But how those resources are spent, allocated, implemented, will stress-test socio-political relationships. This will happen in Africa too (Stone, 2021). Nevertheless, through this initiative, China has made a considerable contribution to infrastructure development, also in Africa. The US, on the other hand, does not do infrastructure investment well, neither does it have a history of participating therein (Snyder, 2021).
To counter and carve for itself its niche position, the Biden administration could very well continue with the previous administrations’ provision of technical assistance to African governments. For example, in the field of fiscal governance and the countering of debt trap diplomacy, the US government could assist African finance ministries and budget officials, to give them the tools to better assess potential loans. Frankly, some African loans are good, but many are not, and don’t make sense. The capacity needs to be developed in order to determine whether the loan makes economic sense, what the environmental implications are, what the employment implications are, and whether they employ local folk or provide opportunities for expat employment. In so doing, the US could play an important role in Africa’s development, which role, they anticipate, should be well received by African leaders (Sheehy, 2021).
So, who is best positioned to compete in Africa? Is it China or the US? Actually, it will be Africa. They will be able to benefit from both US and Chinese opportunities, which offerings, in essence complement each other (Stone, 2021).
But China’s goal in Africa, caution the Americans, is to integrate. It is not benevolent or malevolent, its agnostic to Africa’s situation lest disruptions occur that will harm China’s reputation. This is why China’s largest push into Africa is not economic or political, but symbolic. A public relations campaign that is fed by economic inducements (Stone, 2021).
As alluded to in the introductory part of this paper, in the days following President Biden’s assent to office, analysts attempted to predict what the US’s policy would be towards Africa, and China, and how these dynamics would play out on the African continent. There seemed, at the time, to be a general consensus that the US would take a keener interest in Africa, and, although it would in large measure continue with the previous administration’s China policy, the tone would shift from combative to being competitive.
Since then, there have been mixed signals as it relates to US-Chinese foreign policy. On the one hand, the Biden administration has reaffirmed the desire to collaborate and cooperate with China in areas that serve American interests, in sharp contrast to the Trump era of an all-encompassing decoupling policy towards China. However, on the other hand, it is accusing China of acting more aggressively, especially as it relates to the abuse of human rights. Some analysts are even suggesting that the US is opening up new fronts in the trade war with China and mobilising a concerted international opposition to China’s alleged disregard for the US-led rules-based democratic and human rights order.
However, predictions, as they relate to US-Africa foreign policy, on the other hand, seem to be, in large measure, playing out as expected. There is a definite sense that the US’s policy toward Africa is normalising from the Trump-era interruption. Indeed, continuity of Bush and Obama administration policies, and even an expansion of US development agencies activity in Africa, could comfortably be anticipated.
This expectation is given further impetus with the range of pro-African appointees in the new Biden administration. That said, Africa should not expect a free pass as the US will remain critical where African countries and leaders do not follow the rules-based democratic and human rights world order.
Then too, it was predicted that in terms of US domestic policy, China would remain a political football. This also appears to hold true. China, of course, had hoped for a more constructive approach based on mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. This did not happen. Thus, on the global stage the relationship between the US and China remains strained, which unfortunately spills over to Africa (Sonjica, 2021), leaving it in a quandary: How do they respond to these dynamics?
In an effort to ease the discomfort, the Biden administration has, to their credit, sought to calm the waters. They have made it clear that they do not expect African leaders to take sides between them and China. There is a realisation that the Trump-era style of demanding that African countries work with the US against China was not popular with African leaders and could not be followed. Also, the US’s approach towards Africa’s China relationship is shifting from combative to persuasive.
It is recognised that during the last four to five years under Trump, China leapfrogged the US in Africa in terms of infrastructure, technology, and financing, posing a formidable challenge for Biden to overcome. Much of the future African economic development is going to be built on Chinese investment. China has also surpassed the US as the largest trading partner of Africa (Gumede, 2021).
That said, the US and China, in their African strategies, seem to, in many respects, be focussing on different priorities. For the Chinese it is infrastructure and technology. Whereas for the US alternative opportunities exist in the provision of technical assistance and the promotion of rules-based democracy and human rights through the strengthening of civil society and the media (Gumede, 2021).
Areas of competition between the two global giants will be in the field of renewable energy, trade and financing, with development financing being the key issue (Gumede, 2021).
As for the way forward in terms of rebuilding US-Africa relations:
Africa should strongly lobby their American counterparts, with, given the range of pro-African appointees to the new US administration, unique opportunities being presented for securing face-time and warm body engagements with them (Gumede, 2021). Crucially, Africa needs to learn to speak with one voice (Sonjica, 2021). To take advantage of the opportunities Africans need to get better organised in the US to engage the policymakers in a more coordinated way, with a clear strategy aimed at taking advantage of identified key priorities, which could include, amongst others, the extension and further expansion of AGOA, technical assistance with regard to matters of governance, security issues, and the advancement of democracy and human rights (Gumede, 2021).
Africans must accept that there is always going to be an element of competition between the US and China (Snyder, 2021). The US will follow a rules-based approach to international relations as it had before, whereas China will continue to promote its mutually beneficial approach to trade and investment and to expand its influence through its Belt and Road Initiative. African countries need to figure out, from an African point of view, and by defending its own interests, how to position themselves between these two approaches for maximum benefit (Gumede, 2021). They need to come up with a plan that appreciates the uniqueness of these two powers (Sonjica, 2021).
Moreover, in order to navigate the not-by-choice tricky dynamics imposed on them, Africa should seek a mechanism for triangular engagement between themselves, the US and China. Enticing former African leaders that excelled in multilateralism to help facilitate this notion may be advisable (Weseka, 2021). Who knows, such a continental solution may even serve to alter the global discourse for the good.
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Grobler, G. 2021. Contribution as an expert-panellist in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Ambassador Gert Grobler is a former senior South Africa diplomat and currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Zheijiang Normal University.
Gumede, W. 2021. Moderator of the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Professor Gumede is the Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works and Associate Professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.
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Sheehy, T. 2021. Contribution as an expert-panellist in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Professor Tom Sheehy is the Principal, Quinella Global, and former staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Snyder, C. 2021. Contribution as an expert-panellist in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Professor Charlie Snyder is Professor of African Studies at the Institute for World Politics, and a former National Intelligence Officer for Africa.
Sonjica, B. 2021. Participant in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Ms Sonjica is a former South African Cabinet Minister and currently the Chairperson of the Inclusive Society Institute’s Advisory Council.
Stone, J. 2021. Contribution as an expert-panellist in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Dr Joshua Stone is, inter alia, a former Professor of International Instruction, Beijing, China—DePaul University, and a former Congressional Aide to Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
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Weseka, B. 2021. Contribution as an expert-panellist in the Inclusive Society Institute’s dialogue on “Rebuilding US-Africa relations under the Biden Administration and its nexus with China”, which was hosted on 22 June 2021 via Zoom. Dr Bob Weseka is the Coordinator of the African Centre for the Study of the US, University of the Witwatersrand.
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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute
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