Increasing Overt Competition By The US And China Over Africa

The ‘US Hearing on China’s Strategic Aims in Africa’ by U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission took place on Friday, May 8, 2020, under the theme: China Strategic Aims in Africa and was aimed at assessing China’s influence in Africa and its implications for the United States. This article recaps what took place at the meeting and its importance for Africans. 

By: Udeme Udoh

Who Said What: Testimonials by the Experts

In the opening statement, Carolyn Bartholomew, the Vice President of the Commission discussed China’s conspicuous footprint in Africa and highlighted access to Africa’s massive natural resources, international support, and the market for Chinese products as China’s gains with respect to the engagement. In another opening statement, Andreas Borgeas, a senator from California acknowledged the significant place of Africa in China’s foreign policy as well as China’s impact on the continent so far.

Testimony by Christopher Maloney, the Acting Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Africa, U.S. Agency for International Development, stressed the focus of the American model of international development, which promotes self-reliance and the ideals of democracy. Maloney, however, noted that the success of this model in Africa is under serious threat, occasioned by the Chinese development model, which promotes “long-term dependency and disrespect for human rights”.

Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of East Asia Program, Stimson Center started by pointing out China’s historical quest for Africa’s diplomatic recognition upon which China still relies on for two major things: success at the international political arena and validation of China’s development model, which combines political authoritarianism and economic capitalism, thus proving that economic development and political stability can coexist without a democratic system. Sun’s statement showed that China has continued to promote these political relations through economic enticements, and exchange programs for African political, economic, and social elites aimed at exposing them to China’s experience in economic development and political governance. 

The statement further contrasted China’s impact in Africa to that of the US in media, economy, technology, and politics, which most African leaders see as a welcomed development. In order to manage China’s influence in Africa, Sun advised the US to enhance its engagement, emphasize bidirectional communication channels, increase investment in African civil society, align with like-minded partners, and limit the impact of great power rivalry on Africa (the U.S. should avoid punishing Africa for the sake of competing with China).

David Shinn, Adjunct Professor, George Washington University started by admitting the fact that Africa occupies a higher priority in Beijing than it does in Washington, and went further to highlight five incentives that account for Africa’s attractiveness to China: natural resources, the market for products, political power, protection for citizens in Africa, and the quest for military power. Shinn’s recommendations were in line with that of Sun and included the need for the US to support Africa with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Paul Nantulya, Research Associate, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University like other testifiers, recognized the enormous engagements of China in Africa as well as China’s efforts in projecting itself as a dependable world power, especially with the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Nantulya went further to give an exposition of Chinese influence in African military through the provision of military training. Nantulya concluded by pointing out that China’s dedication to out-competing the West, coupled with Africa’s perceived receptiveness to China’s global ambitions, means that its African engagements will intensify.

Scott Morris, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development looked at what Covid-19 and its attendant economic effects mean for China’s program of overseas investment, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Morris’ testimony examined the engagement of China in Africa with special attention to China’s tied financing model for Africa in contrast with other models like that of the World Bank. The testimony submitted that with the financial stress occasioned by Covid-19, “it is less plausible that China’s role in global development finance will simply disappear”.

Another testifier, Joshua Meservey, Senior Policy Analyst, Heritage Foundation, drew attention to the increased military operations of China on the international scene, especially in Africa. The testimony suggested that this act is part of China’s integrated approach in Africa, which majorly leverages relationships with senior African officials to achieve its foreign policy goals. An effort, which gives China the appearance of a US competitor with respect to Africa. 

Meservey, therefore, recommended that the US should ensure the following in order to protect its interest: maintain and, where practicable, enhance security cooperation with African states; speed up implementation of the Prosper Africa initiative; confidently advocate for American values; focus on achievable goals; focus on governments with which a mutually beneficial and strategic partnership is possible; create a strategic messaging initiative; prioritize the fight against African corruption; help African countries get the best possible deals from Chinese investment; encourage countries borrowing from Beijing to be transparent; and strengthen civil society in Africa.

Judd Devermont, Director, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies then spoke about China’s security engagement in Africa, an engagement which China claims is mutually beneficial and serves for the protection of its citizens abroad but which is not actually mutual and serves the long-term motive of achieving economic ascendency, an expansive global logistics network, and influence in multilateral bodies. Devermont, therefore, recommended that since “African leaders and publics regard Chinese security activities as advantageous, the US should stop dissuading African leaders from cooperation with China but rather prioritize deepening its influence through partnerships with African government and external partners”.

China is perceived as a strategic threat to the US with respect to engagements in Africa. This was revealed in the testimony of Aubrey Hruby the Senior Fellow, Africa Center, Atlantic Council, which outlined China’s evolving technological footprint in Africa and how the US can respond. The testimony expressed concern with growing Chinese interest and involvement in the digital economy, which prioritizes market share dominance over profitability and returning capital to investors in the medium term. Hruby, however, submitted that despite the threat, the US still has great potential in the media and digital economy space in the region. Hruby concluded by stressing the need to identify and address the issues preventing greater US investment in the media sector in Africa’s largest markets.

Steven Feldstein, Non-resident Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also talked about China’s large digital footprint on the continent of Africa, particularly in the provision of surveillance technology employed in the Safe City Projects. Feldstein, however, expressed worry that China’s export of digital technology is usually, “accompanied by an authoritarian mindset that implicitly encourages and directly enables repressive usage”. The following recommendations were given to the US government: shape norms of responsible use for surveillance technology by establishing a high-level advisory panel to lay out recommendations; increase support for digital rights organizations by establishing a standalone digital rights fun; and provide targeted funding to level the commercial playing field vis-à-vis Chinese firms by establishing a digital technology infrastructure fund administered by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.

Emily de La Bruyère, Principal, Horizon Advisory, expounded on the “Two Markets, Two Resources” strategy by China which literally implies the protection of domestic resources and market, and the penetration and control of foreign resources and markets. Bruyere advised the US to develop prioritization logic to guide strategic resource allocations along with the entire set of geographic and functional domains of competition with Beijing”.

There Is Increasing OVERT Competition Over Africa

From the testimonies above, it is evident that China and the US and by extension other developed economies are in competition over Africa. Both the US and China believe that their development model is best and they are making efforts to sell their model to Africa. The US believes in achieving economic development in a democratic setting while China believes that democracy is not a universal value and that economic development can be achieved in an autocratic system.

Irrespective of ideologies, the fact remains, the US and China are economic entities and all economic entities are driven by self-interest. This implies that any country that demonstrates a show of kindness to Africa is doing so because of what it stands to gain. We all know that there is no free launch anywhere and every economic entity responds to incentives – meaning that no country can be benevolent to Africa for nothing in exchange. Instead of painting a picture of the devil and angel, I would rather put up a question: how can Africa leverage its attractiveness to get what it wants?

Udeme Udoh is the student ambassador of Africans on China at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He majors in Educational Management and Economics and serves as a Tutor to students in Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Mathematical Economics at the Faculty of Education through which he received the most dedicated tutor from the Nigeria Universities Education Students’ Association (NUESA) University of Ibadan award. Upon graduation, Udeme is looking to build a global business brand in tech-photography and secure  an MBA scholarship. 

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