If the early months of the Biden administration are any indication, the U.S.-China rivalry shows no signs of dimming anytime soon. Initial meetings between top Biden administration and Chinese officials in March were heated and appear to have done little to reduce tensions over many divisive issues. There is growing bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for “hardline” policies against Beijing. Meanwhile, China is increasingly active worldwide, including in Africa, where its expanding presence is concerning to the United States.

Newly arrived engineers from China serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) arriving in Nyala, South Darfur, July 17, 2008. (U.N. Photo/Stuart Price)
Newly arrived engineers from China serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) arriving in Nyala, South Darfur, July 17, 2008. (U.N. Photo/Stuart Price)

While the jockeying for standing between the United States and China is more intense in the Asia-Pacific region, where the threat of military conflict is real, Africa has not escaped this growing great power rivalry. Countering China was the lodestar of the Trump administration’s Africa policy. While the Biden administration may be looking for general areas of cooperation with Beijing, its Africa policy will certainly reflect its overarching aim of challenging China.

China’s Policy in Africa

China’s activities in Africa date to the continent’s pre-independence period, when ideologically driven Beijing supported liberation movements fighting colonial powers. Today, China still draws political good will from this legacy. But it’s China’s commercial engagement, which has ballooned over the last two decades, that is most significant. Along with being the biggest infrastructure lender in Africa and a top trade partner, the Belt and Road Initiative has given Beijing high standing in many African countries. China also makes substantial efforts to win political and cultural influence, including by providing political party training, courting African leaders by building government buildings and impressing broader publics with donated sports stadiums and hospitals. China has committed to a well-developed and consistent Africa policy, centered on its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held every three years.    

China invests heavily in Africa because it sees a continent of abundant natural resources, including strategic minerals, and a growing, youthful population that offers significant commercial opportunities. In 2020, African countries accounted for seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies. There are 54 African countries represented at the United Nations, which often vote as a block, making Africa an important force in multilateral diplomacy. China’s foreign policy seeks to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party at home by winning accolades and showing its clout worldwide, including in Africa. Turkey, India, Russia and many other countries are increasingly active in Africa and should not be ignored. But none come close to the current or potential size and scope of China’s footprint in Africa.

U.S. Policy in Africa

By comparison, the United States has not approached Africa with anything near China’s current strong focus measured by high-level attention and resources. Ambassador Tibor Nagy, the top State Department official for Africa in the Trump administration, recently wrote that China is “kicking our tails everywhere” on the continent. While the Biden administration may pay more attention to Africa, few believe that the United States will close this engagement gap with China in Africa anytime soon. Nevertheless, a bipartisan consensus is growing that the United States has interests on the continent that engender competition with China. This is seen by the recently launched Development Finance Corporation and various China-focused legislative initiatives in the Congress.         

The African View

Though varying from country-to-country, Africans generally welcome Chinese commercial engagement. Among the world’s poorest, and long marginalized from the global economy, African countries badly need the foreign investment that state-backed Chinese companies have provided. Many African governments appreciate China’s policy of not criticizing human rights and governance practices. Africans desire U.S. investment too, providing them with added opportunities and choices. But U.S. investment has lagged, as many American companies have been deterred from entering difficult African commercial climates.

What African countries don’t want is to be is caught between the United States and China.  African leaders repeat this proverb often: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Yet globally, a position of neutrality may become increasingly difficult to avoid. Trump administration policy was to dissuade countries from using the services and products of Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei. China penalized South Korean businesses in retaliation for Seoul buying a U.S. air-defense system. This type of aggressive commercial diplomacy is increasing, leading some experts to speak of a coming bifurcated global economy, with the United States and China promoting different technological infrastructures and trade and investment rules. While Africans haven’t been at the center of this growing struggle for supremacy, it is a concern on the continent.  

Is Cooperation Possible?

Given the growing great power competition, is there opportunity for the United States, China and African countries to cooperate in areas of mutual interests? Clearly, Washington, Beijing and African countries share some common interests. These include addressing climate change, combatting transnational terrorism and maritime piracy, and managing public health crises. As a member of the U.N. Security Council, and contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions, China has shown a level of commitment to promoting peace and stability in Africa. This includes, for example, deploying some 1,000 Chinese peacekeepers to South Sudan, where China has a major oil investment. 

Obviously, cooperation between the United States and China isn’t easy, even in geographically distant Africa. The two countries’ governance models and value systems greatly differ, putting them at odds over democracy and human rights in Africa, among other issues. Competition is increasingly the default position. But simply stated, the areas of common interest are too important not to make an effort at cooperation, at least in areas where the costs of trying are manageable. Moreover, it’s unrealistic and counterproductive for the United States to ground its Africa policy on across-the-board confrontation with China. African issues are too complex — and Africans are too independent — for effective U.S. policy to be centered on countering any one external actor, even one as consequential as China. 

Africans remember the Cold War and resent great power rivalry brought to their homes. The Biden administration has stressed greater partnership with African countries, which seems to be well received. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently told allies that the United States would not force them to choose between Washington and Beijing. The United States should seek to work with China where possible, as Africans desire, and otherwise help them to deal with Beijing from a position of strength, including by improving the capacity of African governments and civil society to assess and ensure accountability of proposed Chinese investment. Such an approach promises to win the United States support and influence on the continent.    

Let the Debate Begin

The U.S. Institute of Peace’s Africa Center will be publishing a series of articles with varied observers, running through this year, exploring U.S.-China relations as they impact Africa, with a mindful eye toward Africans’ views on Chinese engagement. Ultimately, U.S. policy that fails to account for African conditions and aspirations is doomed to fail.

What areas are most promising for U.S.-China-Africa cooperation? Can the United States hope to match Chinese engagement in Africa? Should it try? What role do democratic values and human rights play in the relationship? Is promoting transparency and anti-corruption a worthy U.S. policy priority? How can African governments best manage Chinese engagement, and how should the United States help? Which African countries are gaining the most from their relationship with China? How could COVID-19 change these great power dynamics? Given various threats to peace and prosperity (e.g., climate change, terrorism, maritime piracy and pandemics), can Washington and Beijing find incentives to work together? These are some of the questions we will explore as we seek to better understand these important challenges.

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