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ISS TODAY OP-ED

US’s continued influence in Africa rests on bridge-building with China

US’s continued influence in Africa rests on bridge-building with China
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he walks with US President Joe Biden at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, in Woodside, California. 15 November 2023. (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

In a complex new multipolar world, a country’s allies and friends will determine the global pecking order. 

Despite its large population, Africa is a small global player. Its combined economy is less than 3% of the world economy, and Africa’s political heterogeneity makes it difficult to stand united on contentious issues such as China’s claim over Taiwan or the war in Ukraine.

Although most African countries aren’t part of global value chains, external economic challenges and tensions affect them deeply. Africa’s most violent period since independence was in the years before the Berlin Wall collapse in 1989. At the time, tensions between the United States (US) and former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) led to intense proxy wars in the Horn of Africa and Angola.

Based on that experience, a new era of competition between the US and China doesn’t augur well for the continent.

At its peak, the USSR’s economy was only half that of the US, whereas the US and China will be roughly equivalent in the next decade. China is already larger when using purchasing power parity. By 2050, the Chinese economy will be almost 30% bigger.

China is the world’s factory, manufacturing cheaper and more than anyone else. It has flooded the world with affordable solar and wind products to fuel the green transition. China is the global trade destination for many and it builds much of Africa’s infrastructure.

Read more in Daily Maverick: China’s wind and solar are now almost enough to power every home

China and surrounding Asian countries are emerging as the most important source of economic growth globally. According to an in-depth study by The Economist in May 2022, “No other country comes near the breadth and depth of China’s engagement in Africa”. In contrast, US trade and investment with Africa is declining. If the US wants to maintain its influence on the continent, it should find ways to collaborate rather than compete with China.

Agoa and China relations

The bill proposed in April by a bipartisan group of senators to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) for another 16 years shows that influential US groups are willing to engage with Africa for the long haul. With its low levels of trade reciprocity, the Agoa trade model is well suited to Africa’s needs. The US should use Agoa as a carrot to boost Africa’s exports, not a stick for economic coercion to achieve political objectives.

The rise of China in a crowded world means the future will be quite different to previous periods of competition and cohabitation. Many of Africa’s ruling elites cast longing eyes towards China’s autocratic development model as a means to reduce poverty. Democracy and the free market haven’t delivered development, they argue. There is a sense of restlessness in Africa, where the median age is only 19. The youth bulge is expanding with limited prospects for formal employment, a healthy life or meaningful education.

Global power shifts

To analyse the impact of various global futures on Africa’s development, the Institute for Security Studies’ African Futures and Innovation programme has examined recent and likely global power shifts.

For the past century, the US has been the most powerful country in the world. It has successfully presented a narrative that equates global development, stability and progress with American interests and values. Many Africans look to the US, given its freedoms and opportunities — although positive views of the US are dropping in number.

The image of a violent mob descending on the Capitol in January 2021 shattered the myth of American exceptionalism, exposing a country torn asunder by its political divisions. Rural America’s reaction to globalisation and the rise of domestic populism detracts from US soft power. At the same time, its declining ability to deter others is on display in the Middle East, which is on a knife edge.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Instead of oil from Africa, the next commodities boom for the continent will come from minerals needed for the renewable energy transition. This is reflected in a recent United States Institute of Peace report exploring Africa’s role in diversifying US critical mineral supply chains and strengthening the rule of law, transparency and environmental and labour standards.

The US faces an uphill struggle since China has already secured much of Africa’s known supply of critical minerals. China’s dominant position regarding these resources reflects the extent to which it is in a different league to the former USSR.

Instead of confronting China in Africa, the US must find ways to collaborate with it. Africa cannot again serve as an arena for proxy conflicts and competition, this time between the US and China.

Plus, it is Russia, not China, that is now the spoiler in Africa. The extent to which Sahelian countries are experiencing a resurgence of military coups with regime protection provided by Russia’s Africa Corps (previously Wagner) augurs poorly for the continent’s future.

The more significant challenge is that the West faces a much larger and more powerful cohort of detractors, perhaps most readily depicted as the G7 versus BRICS+. The impunity that the West has provided to Israel for its war in Gaza and further afield reinforces global south views that different standards apply to them compared to the developed north.

Current indications point to China becoming more influential in Africa, with many countries turning eastward. Rather than a new unipolar or even bipolar order, the trend is towards a complex, multipolar global power configuration where one’s allies and friends will determine the international pecking order. Learning to rely on them will be a new experience for the US. DM

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria and Chair, ISS Board of Trustees.

First published by ISS Today.

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  • Jean Racine says:

    What a pleasure to read proper analysis on the Africa-China-US relationship, instead of the lobby talking points from Brenthurst et al.

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