Next week, nearly 50 African heads of government plan to be in Washington, D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. A broad range of issues will be discussed, from food security to global health to education. While rightly not on the formal agenda — the summit is about the United States and African countries — the United States’ rivalry with China, and how it impacts Africa, will be in the background of this major diplomatic event, certainly to be discussed and analyzed in private conversations surrounding the summit.

Passengers at the station for a railway, built and funded by China, in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 13, 2021. (Sarah Waiswa/The New York Times)
Passengers at the station for a railway, built and funded by China, in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 13, 2021. (Sarah Waiswa/The New York Times)

The Biden administration’s U.S. Africa strategy, released in August, correctly notes that “Sub-Saharan Africa’s governments, institutions, and people will play a critical role in solving global challenges.” In discussing other countries’ growing engagement with Africa, the strategy starkly assesses that China views Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-bases international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.” I think this is right. To advance U.S. interests effectively, Africa policy must be based on a realistic assessment of Chinese activity on the continent, one that appreciates the African perspective.    

Here are 10 things to know about China’s role in Africa, how it impacts U.S. interests and what Africans want from U.S. policy.

1. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is overdue and welcome.

China has been holding the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation every three years since 2000, which is widely seen as an important means of advancing Chinese diplomatic and commercial interests. Other nations hold Africa summits too, including Russia, Turkey and Japan. This is only the second Africa summit held by the United States, the first occurring in 2014. While summits receive some criticism for not producing concrete results, there is reason to hope that this summit will be impactful. For example, its Business Forum’s “deal rooms” will announce commercial transactions involving U.S. and African companies, some backed by U.S. government agencies. The summit is an important symbol of the value the U.S. places on its African relationships — African leaders have responded well, with nearly every invited leader expected to attend. 

2. China has systematically increased its involvement in Africa for over 20 years now.

China’s activities in Africa began with Beijing’s support of liberation movements fighting colonial rule. Beginning in the late 1990s, China’s commercial engagement intensified, being formalized in 2013 with the Belt and Road Initiative, a well-resourced effort to build political influence and grow commercial relationships throughout the developing world. Key activities include lending for infrastructure development engineered and constructed by Chinese companies and resource extraction by Chinese mining and energy firms. While certain countries, including Ethiopia, Angola and Zambia, have been a priority, China has grown its presence in most every African country. Over the decades since the Cold War, Chinese influence in Africa has increased significantly, while U.S. influence has flatlined.

3. China has far surpassed the U.S. as an economic player in Africa.

China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding by a factor of four U.S.-Africa trade. China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs. This is roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment. While Chinese lending to African countries has dipped of late, China remains by far the largest lender to African countries. It is to be expected that China’s commercial activity in Africa would increase with the dramatic rise of its economy to become the second largest in the world, especially given China’s need for raw materials to support its very large manufacturing base. But this growth also represents a determined Chinese government-driven effort to make significant inroads in Africa.   

4. Not every Chinese engagement in Africa is worrisome.

U.S. officials have expressed concern over China’s military activities in Africa. In 2017, China completed its first overseas military base in Djibouti. There have been reports of China looking to build naval bases on Africa’s Atlantic Ocean coast, including in Equatorial Guinea, where Chinese companies have constructed and upgraded port facilities. Equatorial Guinea is indebted to China, raising speculation of Beijing using its economic leverage to acquire a port, which rightly concerns the Pentagon. This led the Biden administration to ramp-up engagement with Equatorial Guinea. 

Potential Chinese military ports on the Atlantic Ocean are very different, however, than the hundreds of Chinese-financed and built infrastructure projects throughout Africa, with little or no national security consequence. The United States should focus its diplomatic energy on challenging truly sensitive Chinese activities, involving telecommunications and strategic minerals, for example. A U.S. message that all Chinese economic activity in Africa is concerning confuses the issue and is self-defeating, as China will remain a major player in Africa. It also lands flat with Africans who strongly desire greater trade and investment.  

5. China’s conflict resolution role remains unclear.

Despite its growing commercial presence, China has mainly remained on the sidelines concerning conflict resolution diplomacy in Africa. Beijing did appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa earlier this year, and held a peace conference in Ethiopia, but China has not been as active in diplomacy surrounding that country’s devastating civil war as might be expected given its heavy commercial and political investment in Ethiopia. While the African Union has taken the diplomatic lead, with the United States playing both a public and behind-the-scenes role in Ethiopia, Washington should be prepared if China moves away from its traditional “non-interference” policy to assume a larger diplomatic role in African conflicts.

6. Most African countries desire good relations with both the United States and China, wanting to avoid fallout from major power rivalry.

African leaders recall with concern the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union fought proxy wars in Africa, making them wary of great power rivalry. Some Africans view China as a positive development model. This favorable impression is actively cultivated by Chinese diplomacy throughout Africa. Sometimes U.S. interests will require pressuring Africans to choose, such as when the United States pressed African states to vote to condemn Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations (China abstained). But in general, U.S. diplomacy in Africa will be more effective when it’s not framed as an “us-or-them” proposition, especially versus China. Early in the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told allies that the United States would not expect them to choose between Washington and Beijing. This approach, however, will come under increasing pressure if relations between the two major powers worsen.     

7. Africans want to do more business with the United States. 

Africa is the poorest, and fastest growing, continent. Greater trade and investment are critical, or rising unemployment will stoke more social and political tensions, leading to violent unrest. Unfortunately, Africa remains marginalized from the global economy, representing just three percent of world trade. African leaders, in both government and business, recognize the importance of the U.S. market, the sectoral leadership of many U.S. companies, and the high standards of U.S. businesses, especially compared with the poor transparency and environmental records of many Chinese companies. 

Encouragingly, the African diplomatic corps in Washington wrote the Biden administration asking that commerce be a summit priority. American businesses have been slow to engage in Africa for many reasons, including a perception of high risk, poor infrastructure and lack of government support. With more U.S. government tools now available, including the recently launched Development Finance Corporation, some businesses are viewing the summit as a place to begin their involvement in Africa.

8. The United States should play to its strengths while competing with China.

U.S. companies are not competitive against Chinese and other firms in certain industries, such as road and bridge construction. Chinese firms have lower cost structures and benefit from decades of African experience. But some U.S. companies are competitive, including in the health, financial technology and renewable energy sectors. The United States has a great asset in its large and vibrant African diaspora, many of whom maintain commercial connections with Africa. The summit is wisely engaging and profiling the diaspora.

The United States also remains a source of inspiration for the large majority of Africans, who aspire to democratic governance. Washington should continue to support African democrats, civil society and media that are pressing for open and inclusive governance, often in the face of repression. China, on the other hand, opposes these values.  

9. Contract transparency is key.

Americans and Africans have a shared interest in seeing business practices throughout Africa become more transparent. Waste, fraud and abuse happen outside of public scrutiny. Africans in several countries are pressing for greater transparency of their government’s business dealings. This includes in Kenya, where parliamentarians and civil society successfully pressed for public scrutiny of the $5 billion loan agreement Kenya made with the Export–Import Bank of China to finance the largest infrastructure project in their country’s history, the now complete Mombasa-Nairobi railway. This exposure overrode a confidentiality clause, whose usage is now standard practice for Chinese lending in Africa, raising critical questions about accountability. Without a general understanding of project financing terms, it is impossible for Africans to determine whether infrastructure projects are positively contributing to their development. U.S. businesses will fare better in more transparent African markets.    

10. There are no shortcuts in diplomacy.

Organizing a three-day summit involving some 50 countries is a time-consuming endeavor. There are opportunity costs, as less attention inevitably has been paid to other pressing challenges and opportunities in Africa. To make the most of the Biden administration’s summit investment, sustained follow-up is required, building on any progress made in Washington next week, including stronger diplomatic engagement. Top officials from China (and other countries) outdo American officials when it comes to visiting Africa and receiving African officials. President Trump was the first American president not to visit Africa since President Reagan. Biden has yet to visit Africa as president, although his top diplomat, Secretary Blinken, has been three times in the last year. African leaders understandably view personal visits as a show of respect for them and their countries. The United States has many interests in Africa that warrant such greater diplomatic attention wholly apart from its rivalry with China. 

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