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Biden’s new Africa strategy shouldn't focus on countering China

Confronting Beijing on the continent is popular in Washington but the US would do well to recognize that the Chinese are there to stay.

Analysis | Africa

As President Biden enters 2022, his administration is setting its sights on an Africa strategy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the continent for the first time in November and promised the administration would “do things differently” to engage with African nations on more equitable terms, a commitment made in reference to China’s growing commercial presence on the continent. As Chinese investment in Africa has grown, so too have debates in the U.S. policy community over what, if anything, Washington should do to stop it. But if Biden’s goals for Africa are truly to strengthen democracy and build lasting economic partnerships, confronting China in Africa is not the way to go about it. To avoid making Africa policy into China policy, Biden must take his own rhetoric seriously.

The president appointed former Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Judd Devermont to oversee the creation of an Africa strategy late last year, and the Biden administration unveiled a modestly-funded initiative to strengthen U.S.-Africa business. Increasing economic and political engagement equitably is a good instinct — despite high economic growth in most African states and a thriving African middle class, U.S. bulk trade with Africa was halved over the past 10 years. Restoring commercial ties and developing new opportunities for U.S.-Africa engagement ought to be the centerpiece for any long-term Africa strategy.  

Unfortunately, the new plan looks a lot like the old one. Foreign Policy magazine reported that the Biden administration’s Africa strategy is “aimed at weaving together Biden’s priorities on democracy and human rights, counterterrorism objectives, and countering Russia and China’s growing influence on the continent.” Previous administrations espoused similar goals but tended to sideline Africa unless there was a pressing crisis, be it civil war, Ebola, terrorism, or most recently, Chinese investment. 

There is a strong push for Washington to be more assertive on countering China in Africa. An entire policy community is now engaged in hand wringing about Chinese behavior. Commentators, think tanks, and media amplify every perceived security threat — from alleged debt-trap diplomacy, Chinese peacekeepers, the acquisition of mines (the author is not innocent from this one), and the growing deployment of Chinese private security firms, to the future of Chinese and U.S. bases in Djibouti, and the Belt and Road Initiative’s influence on African policymakers. To the U.S. foreign policy establishment, It all spells trouble.

Rather than pursuing escalation with China, however, U.S. Africa policy should accommodate Chinese growth and seek fairer terms for Americans and Africans alike. China’s efforts are an overt part of a state policy to deepen economic and political cooperation with developing countries. African nations accept Chinese assistance on issues from infrastructure to tackling COVID-19. Like the rest of the world, African consumers import Chinese manufactured goods, and it’s naïve to expect that Chinese manufacturers wouldn’t seek to buy raw materials and fossil fuels from African producers. 

The level of anxiety over China’s engagement with Africa threatens to overshadow U.S. policy on the continent. This is not to say that China’s behavior in Africa is something that the Biden administration should ignore, or that China’s behavior has benefitted the average African worker. In many cases, it has only favored the local political elites.

Chinese companies are notorious for only hiring African low-skill labor and reserving management positions for Chinese nationals. China has also been willing to support oppressive regimes and has generally shown itself unwilling to join the broader international community in discouraging abuse and democratic backsliding by local regimes. There is also the broader concern that as China’s interests in Africa grow, so too might its willingness to use hard power on the continent. These issues require a cleared-eyed U.S. policy, continuous pressure by Washington and its African and international partners, and direct engagement with China to address.

China is not immune to downturns and reversals on the continent. Recently, Beijing announced that it would cut its funding to the continent by a third over the next three years, partially due to concerns that COVID-19’s economic damage might prevent African borrowers from servicing their debts. China’s focus on working with political elites to secure deals can also backfire if those elites leave power. For all the concerns about trade and financial ties diminishing African sovereignty, it bears noting that Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is pressing China, which accounts for nearly half of the DRC’s exports, for fairer terms for its cobalt and copper extraction than it received under its previous president.

Focusing on great power competition risks incentivizing Biden and future U.S. presidents to weaken their push for equitable trade relationships and democratization on the continent. The risks are especially acute if competition with China plays out through proxy conflicts. During the Cold War, Africans paid much of the price for superpower competition as both the Soviet Union and the United States armed proxies in civil wars in countries from Somalia in the Horn of Africa to Angola in southern Africa. Many of those wounds are not fully healed.

Deepening relationships with African countries should have the side effect of discouraging China’s harmful behavior, not the other way around. It falls to Biden to set a new tone in U.S.-Africa relations, one that prioritizes commercial ties and respects the sovereignty of African countries. By raising the standards of what African leaders can expect from their trading partners, China will be pressed to meet the same or similar norms to keep up.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers a speech on “The United States and Africa: Building a 21st Century Partnership”, in Abuja, Nigeria on November 18, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
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