In recent years, there has been growing concern among American policymakers about China’s increasing involvement with developing countries, particularly in Africa. China has gone from having limited engagement with Africa in the 1990s to becoming its largest trading partner. By 2019, China was financing one in five African infrastructure projects and constructing one in three.
However, it is problematic to frame the tensions between the US and China as a new Cold War, as this perspective does not take into account the negative impact that the original Cold War had on Africa. African leaders have pushed back against US pressure to stop working with Chinese companies and have resisted attempts to replace newly installed Chinese internet networks with Western-made alternatives.
You can also read: France’s Macron indicates independent policy over Taiwan
Western pressure to join its campaign against Chinese state repression in Xinjiang has also been met with resistance from several Muslim-majority African states, which have voiced support for Chinese policies. This alignment with China is likely due in part to the perception that the US has been largely disengaged from Africa while China’s role grows stronger every year. Amid these functions, now it is a matter to see whether USA can curtail Chinese influence on the African countries or not.
The limitations of traditional development partnerships drive African countries to work with China
Chinese engagement in Africa goes beyond lending or infrastructure, and African countries have been enthusiastic receivers of Chinese engagement due to the breadth and speed of their funding. Western countries will find it difficult to replicate this engagement.
The close relationship between Africa and China is partly due to inefficiencies and barriers in traditional development partnerships. Despite concerns about China’s tendency to prioritise local elites over broad-based engagement and its lack of transparency and openness in loan agreements, many African countries have opted to work with China because of a lack of alternative options. However, Western partners are not necessarily better on these fronts. Interviews with leading experts on Chinese lending have revealed that Western institutions are similarly opaque, and a U.S.-led initiative promoting transparency in all major development loan contracts could represent a significant step forward and force China to respond.
China’s solar dominance creates US clean energy dilemma
In search of establishing influence, Washington Democrats are launching a late-stage effort to lure the clean energy economy back to the US from China by investing in the battery sector, backing risky start-ups, and developing tax incentives and grant programs. However, the Biden administration faces a difficult choice as it seeks to expand the use of solar power domestically to reduce the US’s carbon dioxide emissions while challenging Beijing on human rights and unfair trade practices. This dilemma arises because China dominates the global supply chain for solar power, producing the majority of the materials and parts for solar panels that the US relies on for clean energy, according to a report.
In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for global cooperation in the face of a growing anti-China front led by the US. Additionally, China, in the recent past, has sharply rejected EU plans to develop a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism aimed at ensuring that companies producing in countries with laxer climate rules face a carbon cost when exporting to Europe. Finally, Hong Kong’s leading free-to-air TV network, Television Broadcasts (TVB), will not be covering the Oscars ceremony this year, after Chinese government authorities instructed all media in the mainland not to broadcast the ceremony live and to play down its significance, according to Variety.
Recently, China dropped 98% of tariffs on exports from Burundi, Ethiopia, and Niger, and allowed other African countries to start exporting duty-free to China. Analysts say this additional support for the largely impoverished continent will help China maintain its lead over the US in aiding Africa’s economic development.
Trump and Pompeo’s derogatory comments hampering U.S. coalition-building efforts
Former President Donald Trump’s derogatory comments about Africa being “shithole countries” and the attempts by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials to label Chinese-led infrastructure as “debt traps” have not helped in repairing alliances and building support for a coalition to counter Chinese influence. While President Biden has made friendly overtures to the continent and raised the possibility of a new coalition to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, American policymakers still underestimate what that will take. The issue isn’t just lending or infrastructure, but the breadth of Chinese engagement in Africa, which Western countries will find difficult to replicate.
For instance, African countries have pushed back against pressure to drop Huawei because the company is involved at every level of internet provision, from undersea cables to terrestrial networks to selling mobile phones to African consumers. Western competitors may be able to compete on some of these fields, but not all of them at once, and certainly not with the speed and efficiency of funding as provided by Chinese state banks.
Moreover, it is still unclear how much appetite there is among Western companies to even consider Africa as a market. For example, while music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are still testing their African presence, the Chinese streamer Boomplay has more than 75 million African users and legally cleared the world’s largest repository of digitised African music.
How US can take the driving seat then?
To effectively address Chinese influence in Africa, the United States needs to shift its mindset and focus on meeting the continent’s development needs. This can be achieved through collaboration with African governments and targeting areas where the US has advantages, such as education and specialised services like risk assessment and legal analysis. Rather than confronting China directly, the US should tactically address weaknesses in China’s engagement with Africa, such as their lack of experience in environmental and socioeconomic impact assessment.
Hosting a regular Africa Plus One summit and reopening channels of communication with African leaders can also be useful. It’s crucial for the US to prioritise Africa’s development goals with real funding and clever, strategic long-term engagement instead of trying to pressure African governments to choose sides in a new Cold War. Abandoning the fantasy of kicking China out of Africa is the first step towards effective engagement.