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The US-China-Africa nexus under a Biden Administration

Occasional paper 8/2020

Copyright © 2020

Inclusive Society Institute

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Author: Daryl Swanepoel

MPA, BPAHons, ND: Co. Admin


When the Biden administration assumes office on 20 January 2021, Africa hopes to exit the awkward diplomatic state of affairs presented by the current Trump administration’s laissez faire, even disparaging, attitude towards the continent, and the conundrum caused by the US – China squabble over the coronavirus and trade. It hopes for a reset of relations to those pre-2017. What do analysts expect?

Normalisation of US-China relations

It is expected that President-elect Biden will usher in a new era of diplomatic normality between the United States and China. Whilst the United States will continue to sharply differ with China on a number of fronts, including, inter alia, differing stances related to human rights, for instance the Uyghur people, the ramping up of Sino-military might, particularly in the South China Seas, and, what it considers unfair trade practices, it is expected to radically adapt its style and approach (Stremlau, 2020; Grobler, 2020; Weseka, 2020). The antagonistic and confrontational rhetoric against China is expected to be substituted with a more nuanced, rational argument, in which it positions itself as a competitor, as opposed to an adversary. It is expected that the current ‘new cold war’ pomposity will give way to, at worst a competitive rivalry, and at best the seeking of win-win solutions capable of containing the domestic “battle with the Republicans for the soul of America” (Stremlau, 2020).

That said, the immediate focus of the Biden administration will be on revitalising the American democracy and fashioning the US economy to serve its middle class. China will of course feature, but it is secondary to the pressing domestic priorities. One has therefore to expect Biden to engage in politically popular talk such as that America must lead again, but foreign policy actions will be more measured as the administration works towards regaining its international leadership position (Stremlau, 2020). Moreover, with Biden’s propensity for multilateralism and the restoration of America’s place in the world, it appears that the Biden administration will develop a more coherent policy towards China, thereby enabling the US to navigate the multilateral environment more effectively (Weseka, 2020).

Reinvigorating the US-Africa engagement

It is really under the Clinton administration that a serious and sustained US – Africa engagement was developed. It deepened under both Presidents Bush and Obama, during which period the US agenda in Africa experienced remarkable bipartisan support in both the Congress and the White House (Owusu & Carmody, 2020).

Over the past two decades, Africa’s share of annual US foreign assistance funding increased markedly, with annual aid fluctuating between USD 7 billion and USD 8 billion. Notable programmes receiving funding included Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Vine, 2016), Bush’s Presidential Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) (Owusu & Carmody, 2020) and Obama’s Power Africa and Trade Africa programmes (Vines, 2016). In turn, President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, sadly meant them disengaging with Africa (Owusu & Carmody, 2020). Granted, US aid was not cut; in fact, a country such as South Africa received even more assistance in the form of a US grant of at least R410 million to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020 (Home, 2020). For now, therefore, African relations with the US State Department remains relatively consistent (Weseka, 2020; US Department of State, 2020).

And it is to be expected that going forward, the continuity in the US’s relationship with Africa will continue. The US Foreign Policy architecture with Africa is quiet stable, the State Department’s infrastructure, with embassies across Africa, is in place. And the signature projects, such as the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), will remain. The big change is going to be in interest, style, tone, ideology and thrust (Grobler, 2020; Weseka, 2020).

Whilst Biden did not materially deal with Africa during the election campaign, Africa can take its lead from Biden’s stance towards the African-American constituency, which were amongst “his core constituents and key to his bid to make America more of a nation that ‘belongs to all who live in it, united in its diversity’” (Stremlau, 2020). This relationship may well develop into an important link into Africa, be it through African-American participation in the US-Africa Business Council or their (African-American) growing trade and investment activity on the continent (Weseka, 2020).

The Biden-Harris Agenda for the African diaspora suggests a resetting of the US – Africa engagement pre the Trump pause, indeed, it may even be bolder. It asserts, amongst others, “America’s commitment to shared prosperity, peace and security, democracy, and governance as foundational principles of U.S.- Africa engagement”, and the restoration and reinvigoration of “diplomatic relations with African governments and regional institutions, including the African Union” (Biden-Harris Campaign Website, N.d.).

Biden of course has a personal history defending Africa, and particularly South Africa during the apartheid days. He has for many years served on the US Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee, and has visited Africa many times. He understands the continent. It is therefore not surprising that President Ramaphosa was one of the first foreign leaders that he contacted after winning the election. Possibly due to the new emphasis on multilateralism – Ramaphosa is the current chair of the African Union – and/or due to South Africa being viewed as an entry into the broader continent (Weseka, 2020).

It is therefore quiet conceivable that the US will reinvigorate the Obama-era policies towards Africa – in particular, the signature Power Africa project, which was essentially abandoned by the Trump administration. There is also almost certainty that positive movement will be seen in the AGOA discussions, especially important given that it comes to an end in 2025. Here too, continuity is expected, either in the form of an extended AGOA or some new deal, such as a free trade area (FTA) arrangement of sorts (Weseka, 2020).

During the Obama administration a number of bilateral discussions were being undertaken for FTAs between the US and individual countries, for example, Kenya. There were also various multilateral consultations at all levels, be it with regard to trade and investment, or peace and security, amongst others, which seemed to have stalled and become dormant under the current Trump regime (Grobler, 2020).

Not to say that there was no engagement: The engagement seems however to have been through a peace and security prism, with the main focus being on dealing with terrorism and security. What is to be expected under the Biden regime is that the engagement will be across a far broader spectrum, including trade and investment. One can thus expect the restoration of the important US-Africa dialogue (Grobler, 2020).

That said, African expectations will need to be tempered. Whilst US interest in Africa is bound to increase, it should not be expected to top the agenda. The Biden-administration has many fences to mend, with those of its ally, Europe, and major competitors, such as Russia and China, requiring significant attention. The onus will in fact be on Africa to position itself as an active driver of the US-Africa relationship (Weseka, 2020).

The US-China-Africa triangular construct

Perhaps the time is now ripe to encourage US - China trilateral discussion on African issues. There is much to be gained by cooperation in the fields of public health, maritime safety, and even with regard to military and policing matters, where cross-regional coordination is proving vital in both the domestic and international interest (Stremlau, 2020). One need not look any further than the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which knows no border, thereby necessitating global collaboration amongst friend and foe.

Some Chinese and American diplomats (prior to the Trump administration) have in the past promoted the idea of the two sides being responsive to the African agenda. They are of the belief that though competitors, they should strive for win-win-win outcomes. The recent establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) presents itself as a strategic opportunity to do so (Stremlau, 2020).

There have been some moves towards greater US – China cooperation, with suggestions for the United States and China to work in complementary ways in Africa. An example being their shared interest in Africa’s stability - the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has, for instance, started[, albeit prior to the heightened tensions of late,] to engage China in this regard (Fabricius, 2018). Other promising areas for potential “trilateral cooperation include regional economic and infrastructure integration, joint work to address corruption, and mechanisms to support commerce, which could[, amongst others,] include a unified approach to local content provisions” (Brookings, 2013).

Whether that is still possible in the wake of the escalated Sino-American tensions, remains to be seen (Stremlau, 2020). Africa, it is supposed, will take its cue from Biden’s ability to lead America back into the realm of multilateral engagement. The prospect therefore is, however, brighter today than yesterday.

One of the hurdles for the US to consider in its engagement with Africa is that China has been more coherent and systematic in its approach to Africa. The US has been inconsistent, with policy changing as administrations change. To illustrate, past attempts under Obama (and then Vice-President Biden) aimed at setting up a US equivalent of the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), came to nought under the subsequent Trump administration. And now again, given Biden’s commitment to multilateralism, it is quiet conceivable that there will be a return by the US to such a continental approach (Weseka, 2020).

But obviously competition between the two major powers, that is China and the United States, is not going to go away. As previously mentioned, it is fully expected that the Biden administration’s primary focus will, post-COVID-19, be on restoring its domestic economy. How America factors Africa into that equation will be interesting to observe. In reinvigorating US manufacturing, for example, one option may be to focus on the supply of goods and services to the African continent, which will result in it sparring with China, who has become the continent’s major supplier of such. Similarly, in the fields of technology and media, where the US currently has the upper hand with the likes of Google and Microsoft, competition is rife, as Chinese enterprises such as Huawei and ZTE rapidly advance (Weseka, 2020).

Hopefully, this will not lead to a clash, but to healthy competition. The unknown, however, is how the US will respond the Chinese approach, which is open to concessional loans, debt relief and grants, something that the US does not really do. (Weseka, 2020).

Also, on the military front, where both China and the US have a presence, one will have to observe developments. China is increasing its activity. It is deploying military attachés to its embassies, and increasingly getting involved in peace missions on the continent. It has more boots on the ground than the US. And will the Chinese consider it necessary to protect its growing assets and commercial interests on the continent, or the Belt and Road Initiative, through some form of defence mechanism? It is a topic to consider and observe (Weseka, 2020).

That said, with Biden embracing multilateralism, the battleground, it is expected, will move to the multilateral fora such at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and United Nations (UN). But here to, the US would be interested in developing relationships with continental groupings, such as Africa. China has a well-established relationship with the continent, and has, to a certain extent, under Trump, had free reign in the UN when it came to issues of requiring third party support (Weseka, 2020). This again suggests a shift in US policy from bilateralism to an African multilateral approach through a US type of FOCAC.

Finally, the real question is how Africa is going to respond as a collective to the Biden administration. They need to act in a comprehensive and cohesive manner, by developing an African position as regards its expectations from the new US regime. In developing that response, it will have to look at what is in its interest (Grobler, 2020). It should avoid falling into the trap of, in a sense, reliving the cold war, by choosing sides. Africa will have to put its terms on the table and find a way to constructively work with both sides in a manner that best serves its interests (Grobler, 2020).

For Biden, it will, however, not be a simple task to put up a pro-US alliance to temper China’s influence. African countries, and indeed many Middle Eastern, even European countries, have a distinct interest in continuing their relationship with China. They share a commitment to dialogue, mutually beneficial economic cooperation and multilateralism (Grobler, 2020). For the US to advance their African policy, they will have to be accommodative in its approach and tolerant of competition. They will have to accept that Africa is, in its own interest, willing and open to the idea of working with all sides.


Africa has, in the last decades, enjoyed good relationships with both the United States and China, albeit on distinctly parallel tracks. This has greatly aided economic growth and stability on the African continent, whilst simultaneously advancing global development and sustainability. The relationship with China has, in the last four years continued to blossom; with the United States it has, however, in large measure, paused.

The approaching Biden administration presents a unique opportunity, not only for the US to revive and bolster its relationship with Africa, but for it to also take a fresh approach in its engagement with the continent. In recommitting the US to multilateralism, the potential exists for the US to reposition itself as both competitor and collaborator, thereby enabling themselves to acquire their fair share of the opportunities that abound in Africa. Such competition would bode well for the continent (Stremlau, 2020).


Biden-Harris Campaign Website. N.d. The Biden-Harris Agenda for the African – American diaspora. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 1 December 2020]

Brookings. 2013. A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, Africa and China Conference Paper 2 and Responses. The Commercial Relationship between the United States, China and African Countries: Areas for Trilateral Cooperation. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 1 December 2020]

Fabricius, P. 2018. US and China inch towards awkward cooperation in Africa. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 1 December 2020]

Grobler, G. 2020. Interview with Ambassador Gert Grobler, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Africa Studies, Zheijiang Normal University. 2 December 2020.

Home, W.2020. VSA gee nog geld aan SA vir virusstryd. Cape Town: Netwerk24

Owusu, F. & Carmody, P. 2020. Trump’s legacy in Africa and what to expect from Biden. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 1 December 2020]

Stremlau, J. 2020. Personal interview with Professor John Stremlau, Honorary Professor, Department of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand. 1 December 2020.

US Department of State. 2020. U.S. Relations with South Africa. [Online] Available at:,%2C%20environment%2C%20and%20digital%20economy [accessed: 12 July 2020]

Vines, A. 2016. Trade not aid: Obama’s Africa legacy. [Online] Available at: [accessed: 1 December 2020]

Weseka, J.B. 2020. Interview with Dr Bob Weseka, Coordinator: African Centre for the Study of the US, University of the Witwatersrand. 2 December Dante Mashile

(Accredited Public Relations Practitioner), National Diploma in Journalism, Certificate in Project Management (Netherlands), BA, Postgrad. Diploma in Telecoms and Information Policy, Master of Development Studies

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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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