In Africa, US balances own interests with Chinese competition

As the United States partners with African countries on a range of issues, it will work to counter Chinese economic influence in Africa, Robert E. Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs told reporters before Secretary Antony Blinken’s virtual trip to the continent in April.  

President Xi Jinping of China: Photo - Michel Temer 
President Xi Jinping of China: Photo – Michel Temer

“We are very much committed to working together with Africans to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, to promote trade and investment, to strengthen security, to tackle the climate crisis, to advance democracy, human rights, [and] the rule of law,” Godec said on April 26.

The next day Blinken traveled virtually to Nigeria and Kenya, “to engage with governments but also the private sector and civil society,” Blinken told Nigerian and Kenyan journalists after his meetings where he said “we had a chance to talk about the many ways our countries are already working together, but also how that cooperation can be deepened.”

A key way the U.S. seeks to engage with Africa is through trade and investment. Notably, Nigeria is the largest economy and the U.S.’ second largest trading partner on the continent, and talks between the U.S. and Kenya on a bilateral free trade deal are ongoing – such a deal would be the first between the U.S. and an African country.

Godec gave assurances that Blinken’s trip was the first of many; not just from Blinken but also other U.S. officials: “so many other countries are going to get engagement from the United States.”

He said the trip represented a “new and important chapter” between the U.S. and Africa.

But why proclaim a new era of U.S.-Africa relations and focus on economic development? One reason is that the U.S. sees Africa as strategically important in its own right, and recognizes the little attention given to it by the Trump administration. Another is that the U.S. is concerned about Chinese influence.

Godec said the Biden administration does not approach relations with Africa “through the frame” of China, though he added that U.S. engagement would seek to “provide a meaningful alternative to China’s economic approach.”

In that regard, the U.S. has a lot of ground to make up.

“U.S. past engagement in Africa has focused very much on health…More than 70 percent of our foreign assistance has gone into the health sector,” Deborah A. Brautigam, Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins said at a Council on Foreign Relations event last June. “But we haven’t – we’ve neglected a lot of other sectors.”

Brautigam said that while the U.S. has tended to focus on public health, China has focused “more than 70 percent” of investments on infrastructure.

And China-Africa ties are extensive: China is the continent’s largest trading partner and its largest single creditor, accounting for just over 20 percent of all African debt.

Regarding U.S. policy, Godec, and Blinken as well, have highlighted a goal of U.S. business development in Africa. “We’re working to increase trade and investment in the region, particularly in cooperation with U.S. businesses,” Blinken said to Nigerian and Kenyan journalists, adding, “we’re using all of the tools that we have at our disposal, including the Development Finance Corporation, including USAID, Millennium Challenge [Corporation].”

Godec also said the U.S. would counter Chinese economic influence more directly while making sure it provided an attractive alternative. “We’re going to push back on corrupt or coercive practices,” he said. “We’re going to encourage Africans to look for a range of deals and offers on things that they need and want and make sure – and work to make sure that the American offer is the best offer and the one that’s most attractive.”

While Godec highlighted the Biden administration’s respectful approach to African relations; the Chinese, according to Brautigam, have also done a good job “listening” to African governments and people about what they want: “they want development,” she said.

And many are attracted to China’s development model. “They [Africans] admire China because it’s a developing country that has lifted seven hundred million people out of poverty, and they’ve seen China develop so rapidly, and they want to learn from China,” Brautigam said.  

At the same time, “they admire us [the U.S.] for our democracy, our robust system,” she said.

Yet as competition between the U.S. and China intensifies and takes on an ideological dimension – President Biden has promoted the idea of democracy vs. autocracy, though China has rebuffed this distinction – the U.S., through increasing its economic engagement, seeks to counter Chinese social and political influence.

Indeed, beyond providing an “alternative” economic model, Godec said the U.S. will show that it “offers [Africans] an alternative vision” – “or certainly a very different vision from the one that China presents, on economic development, on democratic governance, on human rights, on transparency, and all the rest of it.”

He said that the U.S. will “continue to emphasize that to the Africans” as it works with them on “shared objectives.”

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