How the US Lost: China’s Growing Foothold in Africa

Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undergone extraordinary economic growth, transitioning from a low-income economy to an upper middle-income economy and maintaining its status as the largest contributor to global growth. Now the second largest economy in the world, China is playing an increasingly important role in the world’s economic affairs and development, not the least in Africa. While well-established traditional donors like the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) are pivoting to confront domestic challenges, China is deepening its involvement with the continent.

The US is not only falling prey to what Fareed Zakaria termed ‘the rise of the rest’, but also forfeiting its role in international fora that do not fit the President’s agenda. In just the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has withdrawn the US from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the 2015 Paris Agreement. He has also closed the Office of Global Criminal Justice slashed the budget of the United Nations by $285 million and boycotted the ‘Intergovernmental Conference to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.’

The ‘America First’ policies are especially damaging due to the rise of competing countries and alternative value systems. For centuries, “modernity” and the “Western way of life” have been closely interlinked, but the dawn of the ‘Asian century’ has created an ever-growing gap between Westernization and modernization. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that enthusiasm for US democratic ideals has greatly diminished in countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania. The same study also gauged the degree of confidence in four different leaders to do the right thing in world affairs. Germany’s Angela Merkel ranked first, China’s Xi Jinping ranked second, Russia’s Vladimir Putin ranked third, and America’s Donald Trump ranked last. As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that the current US administration has no coherent vision for Africa, and that US prestige is in decline on the African continent.

A veritable diplomacy crisis

The US is undergoing a veritable diplomacy crisis in Africa. Due to obstruction by the Senate, Donald Trump failed to appoint an Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs within the United States Department of State. Since September 2017, Donald Yukio Yamamoto has been acting in this role, guiding US diplomatic operations in sub-Saharan Africa. This might be the underlying reason why the appointment of new ambassadors to Africa has been so remarkably slow. Of the fifty-five countries on the African continent with which the US maintains diplomatic relations, only five have seen the accreditation of an ambassador during Trump’s presidency.

Moreover in his first year as President of the US, Donald Trump has conducted sixteen state visits, but none to African nations. On the contrary, he has created diplomatic incidents by praising the non-existent country of ‘Nambia’ and using vulgar language to describe African countries and their citizens. His remarks spurred international condemnation that the President failed to respond to. His proposed budget-cuts and short-sighted policies have conveyed the impression of xenophobia and carelessness in America’s fragmented foreign policy towards Africa.

Meanwhile, China has been building on its legacy of diplomatic engagement. In early 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi started a long trip to Rwanda, Angola, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe (a country that has only recently normalized relations with China) to promote solidarity and cooperation. In 2017, both Wang Yi and President Xi visited countries throughout the continent to call for unity in meeting various challenges in the global south. These strong dialogues that China has initiated for the past few years will be particularly instrumental as the 7th Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), to be held in September this year, approaches. In this Ministerial Forum, China and Africa will redefine priorities and presumably strengthen cooperation.

A peaceful rise for China, a turbulent downfall for the US

China’s activities in Africa benefit greatly from domestic uncertainty in traditional donor countries – especially in the cases of post-Brexit United Kingdom and Trump’s America. According to a 2018 EY report that measures private investment in Africa, China is ramping up the volume of financial investment in Africa. In 2016, China emerged as the leading job creator on the continent and the third largest investor as the number of Chinese-funded projects increased by 106%. Overseas financial flows from China into Africa have largely taken the form of development assistance through grants and loans.

But when it comes to evaluating the volume of Chinese investment and aid, analysts and researchers are confronted with a number of ambiguities regarding the financing of activities. Foreign aid, development finance, and overseas direct investment are concepts that are sometimes interchangeable, and that do not necessarily reflect the nature of the projects they fund. This is further complicated by financial data being treated as state secrets, transactions that fly under the radar, and the notoriously under-reported volume of investment.

However, underlying Chinese aid and investment in African states is the egalitarian nature of a ‘win-win’ cooperation under the auspices of “South-South Cooperation” (SSC). SSC can be defined as the pursuit of development objectives by enhancing countries’ capacities through exchanges of knowledge, skills, resources and technical know-how, and through regional and inter-regional collective actions. This framing allows China to transcend the traditional norms of the OECD’s official development assistance (ODA) and include business-driven cooperation which is not recognized as a form of ODA. As FOCAC explains, “China’s foreign aid policy has distinct characteristics of the times. It is suited both to China’s actual conditions and the needs of the recipient countries.” This setting serves as a reminder to host countries that China’s financial contributions differ from the assistance provided by developed countries. The intentional contrast with Western forms of aid and investment is part of China’s strategy to promote its model as the standard for developing countries.

The US is failing to spearhead Africa’s economic growth and development. Aid for development was deprioritized by President Trump, who has threatened to shut down healthcare programs and to reduce funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis (TB) and Malaria. Moreover, Donald Trump announced his intention to tie aid to countries based on their support to US foreign policy, and cut aid to “countries that hate us”. Under these grim circumstances, countries must shield themselves from aid cuts by becoming Trump’s regional allies.

It would be unfair to attribute sole responsibility to Trump for the dysfunctional character of US-African foreign policy. The US, even before Trump, has lacked an overarching strategic framework for foreign policy in Africa. The continent has never gained a prominent role in America’s global strategy, and strategic interests in Africa have been regarded as secondary. To date, Washington is still struggling to find a balance in its foreign policy and to incorporate African priorities in its vision. What is attributable to Trump is his transactional understanding of aid disbursement. In his inauguration speech, the President highlighted that he will not “seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” Linking aid to foreign countries’ loyalty to the US is a perverse mechanism of retribution for those states who dare question the US ‘example’. Trump should ask himself what example his policies are setting; far from being the leading light in global governance, Trump’s America is appealing to fewer and fewer developing nations.

The US losing at its own game

Any heavy readjustment in US-Africa policy, especially aid cuts, will have an impact on business relations and investment, discouraging American companies from starting new activities on the continent. During his two terms, President Obama tried to incentivize businesses to increase operations in Africa—a strategy that did not prove very successful. But at the very least, he understood that private sector, government, and non-governmental development agencies are inextricably linked. For instance, Obama’s 2013 ‘Power Africa’ program was set to bring 30,000 megawatts of electricity to sub-Saharan Africa and could have satisfied both developmental needs and private investment demands.

This is a method that China has learned to apply effectively and successfully. China’s policy encourages state entities and commercial ones alike to “closely combine foreign aid, direct investment, service contracts, labor cooperation, foreign trade and export.” Beijing’s adoption of this comprehensive strategy for Chinese investment and aid in Africa demonstrates the flexibility and adaptability that the country is capable of and proves that China is striving to find suitable solutions to global challenges.

American and European scholars alike point to the sectoral competitiveness of US and EU businesses and aid schemes in the African continent. This might be the case, but may not continue to be so in the long term if existing trends continue. With China and other rising powers challenging Western operations in Africa, the US and the EU have to find new ways to reposition themselves strategically. Countering China is insufficient and could be counterproductive in the greater scheme of world politics. What is required from both Western powers is to find collective solutions that do not set back global development. Where possible, they should be active participants in the multilateral fora that China is using to propagate its message. As of now, the US policy towards Africa is inadequate, and fails to increase American legitimacy on the African continent and throughout the world.

This article builds on an earlier research publication by Anca-Elena Ursu and Willem van den Berg, “China and the EU in the Horn of Africa: Competition and Cooperation?”

https://www.clingendael.org/publication/china-and-eu-horn-africa

Anca-Elena Ursu is a research assistant with Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. Contact her at eursu@clingendael.org.

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