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What A Biden Administration Means For Africa-China Relations

Biden USA Africa China
Credit: Africa Portal

The word ‘sovereignty’ for many countries is only a cliché. Happenings at some ends of the world easily change the course of many elsewhere. Sadly, this condition would remain as such, at least for the most part of this century. Many of these countries – you guessed it – are African. This lack of real sovereignty exposes the inequities within the global political and economic landscape. Africa is thousands of miles away from the coast of the United States and much further from China. Yet, as China becomes a superpower, happenings in or between Beijing and Washington directly or indirectly influence the direction of most African countries.  

For instance, though Africa contributes the least to global warming, experts say Africa is certain to suffer disproportionately from climate change. Towards this end, it is troubling that Trump has pulled the US – one of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide – out of the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Yet again, when the global financial crisis, which started in the US, led to the Great Recession of  2008, African economies paid a hefty price. Especially those that could not do without natural resource export, despite it being none of their faults. 

Few months after the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, Africa started recording cases. Though the virus affected every nook and cranny of the globe, Africa, among all other continents, has been the least prepared to deal with, not only the health but also the economic implications. Whereas developed countries have already spent more than US$10 trillion on recovery and economic stimulus, the International Community is yet to agree to the proposed US$300 billion package and a comprehensive debt service moratorium.  

The aftermath of the latest US election has become a global talk point. What we thought would be a smooth ride for Biden has turned out to be a keen contest with an unprecedented seventy-four million people voting for Trump. Though media projections predict a Biden win in the electoral college, Trump has decided to challenge the results, citing vote-rigging. For us in Africa, who leads the US is important, even though we are not Americans. It affects us in loads of ways you may have not yet imagined, including our relationship with others, like Africa-China relations. 

We have had four years of Trump already. We did not like it. The racism was blunt. A trade war erupted, throwing our economies off track. The US pulling out of the Paris Agreement derailed much of the global efforts at combating Climate change. In 2017, the Doomsday clock was 2 ½ minutes to midnight – the closest it has been since 1953, almost plunging the world into another World War. Just as in the Second World War, we all know too well, the price Africa could pay. 

I must say that though it is delusional to expect a 180 degrees undoing of the status quo, we nonetheless expect Biden to lead an administration that would be better than the one it is about to replace. Although we do not count much, a stable world inevitably leads to better socio-economic outcomes in Africa. This article discusses how Biden’s administration could influence China’s relationship with Africa. 

Pandemic Pushes Africa Into An Uncomfortable Gridlock 

As the silence and uncertainty of lockdown spread through the capital – Accra – Ghana’s Finance Minister, Ken Ofori-Atta, poured out his heart in an op-ed “what does an African Finance Minister do now?” – published in the Financial Times. The op-ed, which details how the pandemic is ravaging the Ghanaian economy ended with a call for a debt repayment standstill and issuance of IMF’s  Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) for struggling African economies.  

In October, six months later, Ofori-Atta followed with another but similar op-ed where he doubled down on his call for SDRs. He advocated for a common international platform to address the continent’s debt issues. He further questioned the inequities of the global financial structure. “That may sound like a lot [US$300 billion], but on a global scale, African demands are a drop in the bucket”, opined Ken Ofori-Atta. 

Although several other African leaders amplified Ofori-Atta’s call, the response from the International community has rather been woefully inadequate. IMF’s emergency loans have been meager. G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative is insufficient. China’s bilateral debt rescheduling with African countries has been opaque, impeding progress on further debt rescheduling from Africa’s private creditors. 

How A Frosty US-China Relation Is Compounding Africa’s Problems 

Polarizing relations between the US and China and other countries, like Iran and Venezuela, partly explains the difficulty in reaching an international consensus in dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic in Africa. When the IMF proposed an increment in the Special Drawing Rights, the US flatly opposed arguing that the increase may accrue disproportionately to developed countries, which least need them. Experts, however, say the US does not want China, Iran, and Venezuela to benefit from IMF’s SDR increments since these countries are also signatories to the Fund.  

African economies had yet to adjust to the economic fall out of the US-China trade rivalry when the pandemic struck. This complicated what was already a dire situation – such an unfortunate moment. The African Development Bank (ADB) estimates that the trade tensions could result in a 2.5 percent reduction of GDP in resource-intensive African countries and a 1.9 percent reduction for oil-exporting countries by 2021. 

According to a brief from the Center For Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), the US-China trade war is aggravating African economic weakness by precipitating a reduction in commodity prices and a reduction in Chinese imports from Africa. Despite the negatives, there were thoughts that Africa could capitalize on the commercial opportunities that may arise from the trade tensions. Manufacturers were diverting operations from China to avoid US tariffs as well as China also seeking to reduce its dependence on US exports. African countries, however, cannot take advantage of this opportunity due to poor manufacturing base, making the continent worse off.  

What Does A Biden Presidency Mean For Africa-China Relations 

Two things I expect to happen under Biden: more international COVID help for Africa and ease of trade tensions between the US and China. These two shifts would have a great impact on how Africa-China relations would evolve after 2021.  

Biden indicated that his first domestic priority is to tackle the impact of the pandemic. This contrasts sharply with Trump, who not only reacted late to the outbreak but also downplayed the health threats. On foreign policy, Biden’s task would be to revive America’s internationalism that Trump severed. On Iran, Biden has announced the Iran nuclear deal would be back on the table. To deal with China, Biden has proposed a multilateral approach, as opposed to Trump’s unilateral approach. In addition, Washington’s disproval of Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro would likely tone down under Biden. 

In line with Biden’s top domestic and foreign priorities, the US is likely to contribute to international efforts aimed at alleviating the pandemic’s impact on Africa. Such efforts may include an IMF SDR increment and the $300 billion liquidity for emerging economies. A gesture of this sort would signal the US’s interest in resetting its relations with Africa – something many African leaders are anticipating.  A reset in Africa-US relations would undoubtedly affect Africa-China relations. With US support,  Africa would likely depend less on China for post-pandemic recovery.  

Second, a reset in US-Sino trade relations would likely have a positive effect on African economies. The South African Rand lost some of its value following the announcement of the trade war. With the ease in trade tensions, commodity prices may see a boost, leading to more investor confidence in Africa. African countries being commodity-driven economies would realize a benefit. Undoubtedly, this would foster an independent post-pandemic recovery in Africa. 

The US’s renewed interest in the continent would introduce an element of competition between Beijing and Washington. This competition is good for Africa politically. Previously when the US withdrew from Africa, the continent had no choice but to turn to China. Now, Africa may have the luxury of choice. China would have to better its game or risk being shown the exit. For instance, as the anti-COVID vaccine competition heats up, the continent may opt to source its COVID vaccines from the West as opposed to China.  

This political advantage would grant African leaders the opportunity to exercise more agency in dealing with China. Critical issues that African leaders have seldom brought up, for fear of losing  Chinese favor would find their way onto the spotlight – issues such as China’s disregard for environmental and labor regulations in Africa. As these issues are tackled, the pace would be set for Africa’s sustainable economic development.  

The outlook for Africa-China relations under Biden looks exciting for Africa but challenging for China.  However, it is in the interest of all parties – Africa, China, and the US – that the relation takes this turn. At least it feeds into the Chinese mantra of ‘win-win cooperation’. In addition, a stronger Africa could be an important deescalating element in today’s global politics that is fast becoming polarised. In essence, a stronger Africa could usher a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous world.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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