Author: Michelle D. Gavin
Site of publication: Council on Foreign Relations
Type of publication: Discussion Paper
Date of publication: May 2021
Competition for influence on the African continent is an undeniable geopolitical reality. The Donald Trump administration’s emphasis on countering China and Russia on the continent raised concerns about unwelcome echoes of the Cold War era, when the United States often treated African states as pawns or prizes rather than partners. But a desire to avoid the mistakes of the past does not negate the need to grapple with the motivations and consequences of other powers’ Africa agendas. The Joe Biden administration, and all major powers, face the same facts: by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African and the continent’s youthful and growing labor force—the largest in the world by that point—will stand in stark contrast to the aging populations of other regions. That human capital will increasingly become the most important feature of Africa’s global profile, although Africa’s natural resources, including cobalt and other rare earth metals critical to humanity’s technology-driven future, will also remain relevant. No entity aiming to influence global affairs in the decades to come can afford a passive Africa strategy.
Major power rivalry cannot be ignored, but it also should not dominate the Biden administration’s vision for U.S.-Africa relations. In acknowledging that African governments and societies will interact with a wide variety of partners to achieve their goals, the United States should develop a clearheaded understanding of the interests, strategies, and methods employed by other significant external actors in order to identify areas of friction and avoid unnecessary tension.
The thorniest issues will entail challenges to the United States’ ability to project power and protect sea-lanes, as well as challenges to global norms and standards in realms as varied as cybersecurity and human rights. Understanding what exactly the United States seeks to avoid—and why—would mitigate the tendency to see inevitable and even healthy global interaction with the continent as threatening. It can also reveal opportunities to deepen cooperation with other external powers when possible and desirable.
The United States benefits when African states are able to provide for their own security and address transnational threats emanating from within their borders; when African economic growth provides opportunity to African citizens and to those abroad who trade, invest, and co-create with them; when Africa is a rule-governed region that bolsters respect for universal rights and the rule of law; and when Africa is invested and active in international institutions that mitigate global crises
As part of that process, the United States needs to break its habit of warning against the potential pitfalls of working with other major powers without providing effective alternatives to satisfy the needs that these powers address. This is not a race-to-the-bottom proposal. The United States should not seek to meet the needs of a government seeking arms and surveillance technology to repress its own people simply because it fears someone else will. But the United States should also recognize that other states seeking financial support to build critical infrastructure or satisfy their populations’ energy needs are pursuing legitimate national interests. Abstract appeals to “shared values” or vague warnings about their partners’ nefarious intentions are beside the point. Instead, U.S. policy should be dictated by a farsighted understanding of its goals in regard to peace and security, prosperity and development, and institutions and norms in Africa.
The United States benefits when African states are able to provide for their own security and address transnational threats emanating from within their borders; when African economic growth provides opportunity to African citizens and to those abroad who trade, invest, and co-create with them; when Africa is a rule-governed region that bolsters respect for universal rights and the rule of law; and when Africa is invested and active in international institutions that mitigate global crises. To help realize this vision, the United States should capitalize on what makes it a compelling partner to African states, work more closely and strategically with like-minded partners, create more space for African agendas in its vision for future global governance, and work to build lasting affinities.
Major powers’ involvement and interests in Africa
Although many countries pursue a variety of interests and partnerships on the African continent, among major powers, the United States and China are by far the most influential and the most frequently understood as rivals. Afrobarometer data suggests that African populations see China and the United States as roughly equal in their influence, with other powers distantly behind. However, understanding other actors in the region—India, Japan, Russia, Europe, and, increasingly, Turkey and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf—will be essential to any successful U.S. attempt to compete with the Chinese juggernaut on the continent.
The United States
The United States has broad security, economic, and political interests at stake in Africa, although it has had only sporadic success in pursuing them. On the security front, the United States works with African partners to constrain and defeat violent extremist organizations across the continent, from al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa to Boko Haram in Nigeria to affiliates of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda throughout the Sahel. Despite the Trump administration’s talk of a drawdown in military personnel, which provoked strong congressional opposition, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) still has between six and seven thousand military personnel on the ground in Africa. The United States has only one permanent military base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (a hub for U.S. military activities in Yemen as well as on the African continent), but has many smaller outposts throughout Africa of varying degrees of permanence, from Manda Bay in Kenya to Agadez in Niger. Indeed, since the United States established its Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, critics of U.S. policy have decried the increasing militarization of U.S. Africa policy, noting the proliferation of counterterrorism efforts and the fact that the DOD’s resources often dwarf those available to other elements of government.
But not all U.S. security activity on the continent is focused on countering terrorist threats. In pursuit of stability, the United States has long been the world’s most generous contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations, the majority of which are deployed on the African continent. For decades, the United States has worked to train, equip, and exercise with African militaries in an effort to boost professionalism and capacity and develop lasting relationships.
Since the Bill Clinton administration, the United States has also highlighted trade, investment, and the opportunities inherent in Africa’s growing middle class. The 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—which provided African goods access to U.S. markets—led to some gains in trade volume initially, but since those improvements plateaued, concrete progress has come in fits and starts at best. Due in part to changes in energy markets and a slowdown in African growth, U.S. trade with and investment in Africa have declined significantly over the past decade, now accounting for less than 1.5 percent of U.S. global trade and less than 1 percent of U.S. foreign direct investment.
The United States has also long been one of the continent’s most significant development partners, providing over $7 billion a year in assistance to African states. Most of that funding (roughly 70 percent) is devoted to health priorities, particularly to combating HIV/AIDS, but the assistance portfolio is vast and includes work in education, natural resource management, agriculture, and strengthening governance
The Trump administration’s Prosper Africa initiative was intended to address this policy shortfall and bolster U.S. business in Africa by better coordinating the U.S. government’s efforts, supported by legislation that established the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and doubled the limit on U.S. government–backed investments from $29 billion to $60 billion globally. Although Prosper Africa’s aims are laudable, the initiative has had limited time to deliver results.
Meanwhile, with AGOA’s looming expiration in 2025, the Trump administration focused on negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Kenya, hoping it would be a model for other countries. Whether the U.S. government has the bandwidth for negotiating individual FTAs with most African states and what the implications of the African Continental Free Trade Area could be for that approach remain unclear. Given the changing African context, the Biden administration will have to devise an economic approach to the continent that is fundamentally different from what came before.
The United States has also long been one of the continent’s most significant development partners, providing over $7 billion a year in assistance to African states. Most of that funding (roughly 70 percent) is devoted to health priorities, particularly to combating HIV/AIDS, but the assistance portfolio is vast and includes work in education, natural resource management, agriculture, and strengthening governance. The United States is also the world’s largest contributor to the World Bank and to various UN agencies that do significant work in Africa, including agencies responsible for humanitarian relief.
The United States aims to develop partners that can share in advancing its preferred global norms and in addressing the burden of global threats, from pandemic disease to climate change to illicit trafficking in people, arms, narcotics, and wildlife. That means both enhancing African capacity and strengthening African support for the United States’ global agenda. The United States has long assumed a certain degree of African support for the rules-based international architecture that has governed international relations since the end of World War II, and it has sought African support within that framework for policy priorities from nuclear nonproliferation to human rights protections.
The United States provides funding to strengthen democratic governance and the rule of law throughout the continent, supporting everything from independent media training to anti–money laundering units in African finance ministries. In some instances, when African visions on global norms are not aligned with those of the United States, Washington has sought to apply pressure to African states, using targeted sanctions on both individuals and entities.
The breadth and depth of China’s economic involvement in Africa are difficult to overstate, but China’s political and military involvement in the region varies in intensity. Far from an emerging actor on the African scene, China has been the preeminent and indispensable infrastructure and financing partner for many African states for many years. Since 2000, long before the formal launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China has hosted a regular Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a more formalized and regularized approach to high-level partnership than the United States has pursued. But even before establishing this formal channel to drive its Africa strategy forward, the Chinese Communist Party has enjoyed decades-long close ties with certain powerful African political parties, such as Zimbabwe’s ruling African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
Since surpassing the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, China’s trade with the continent has come to dwarf that of any other single country. Foreign direct investment has grown at some 40 percent per year for a decade, and China is by far the largest source of infrastructure financing on the continent. Chinese financed infrastructure projects are ubiquitous throughout Africa; from roads to rail to ports to power plants, China is bankrolling prominent, often promising projects that make tangible differences in the economic opportunities available to Africans. However, the terms of this financing are rarely transparent, raising real concerns among Africans and others about debt.
China holds roughly 20 percent of all African debt, and in some countries—such as Zambia and the strategically important Djibouti—that figure is over 50 percent. In the worst case, that level of indebtedness can leave populations mired in poverty as governments direct scarce resources toward servicing debt rather than transformative domestic investments. It can ultimately lead to an effective loss of state assets and even sovereign control to foreign creditors.
Africans are not blasé about being beholden to Beijing. Afrobarometer found that 58 percent of those aware of loans from China believe that their government has borrowed too much and are concerned about being overly indebted to China. Nor is it certain that China can continue pumping money into African economies at its current pace; explicit policy decisions and its own domestic economic constraints are likely to slow the pace of Chinese investment in Africa. Nonetheless, China will remain a premier economic partner for the foreseeable future.
Since surpassing the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, China’s trade with the continent has come to dwarf that of any other single country.10 Foreign direct investment has grown at some 40 percent per year for a decade, and China is by far the largest source of infrastructure financing on the continent
Increasingly, China also seeks a more robust military and security presence on the continent. From participating in peacekeeping missions to joining multilateral efforts to counterpiracy in the Gulf of Aden to increasing the presence of Chinese “private security companies” (which are closely tied to the state), the past decade has seen a significant increase in Chinese military engagement in Africa. Most notably, China built its first formal overseas military base in Djibouti, which officially opened in 2017 alongside bases controlled by the United States, France, Italy, and Japan. In 2018, China began hosting annual China-Africa Defense and Security Forums, and it has pledged military assistance to the AU’s African Standby Force. China is also the second-largest arms exporter to sub-Saharan Africa, after Russia.
The overarching political frame for China’s activities on the continent explicitly depends on a contrast to the United States and Europe. Beijing seeks to offer an alternative model of development to that of the Washington consensus of free-market economic prescriptions espoused by the Bretton Woods institutions. The Chinese approach is to hold up its own breathtaking domestic economic transformation as the example to be emulated—one that does not require multiparty democracy to deliver results but rather enjoys the efficiency of authoritarianism. Thus, China can largely adhere to its stated commitment to noninterference in the domestic affairs of African partners, at least insofar as it rarely uses its influence to counter the interests of ruling elites. Indeed, Beijing seeks close relationships with ruling parties, investing in significant party-to-party training. The overall approach makes China particularly appealing to governments struggling with sanctions or preconditions from international financial institutions.
This frame is not just a tool for differentiation but an agenda and vision for global governance with China at its center. China’s 2015 white paper on Africa policy makes this explicit, framing ChinaAfrica cooperation in the context of a changing international order that needs to accommodate new powers and priorities. At the same time that it asserts China’s increasing importance in shaping global developments, the white paper calls for UN reforms to increase African representation and voice—linking Chinese aspirations to those of African states—calling for nothing less than “a new model of international relations.”
Major sources of friction
The Biden administration clearly anticipates friction with China in Africa. At her confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield took pains to assure U.S. senators that she and her colleagues are keenly aware of China’s “self-interested and parasitic development goals” in Africa specifically.51 The United States and China will continue to clash when African support for their preferred international norms is at stake, and the two powers diverge sharply on a number of issues. Rivalry in these arenas is inescapable. The upshot is that for each party, having real political influence in African capitals will only become more desirable over time.
Human rights, governance standards, and votes in multilateral forums
China and Russia will continue to resist U.S. and European attempts to pressure governments that are abusing their citizens’ civil and political rights, and they will continue to cloak that resistance in the language of defending African sovereignty. At stake is not just a tussle between major powers’ normative visions, but the question of whether the principles enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights are foundational to the continent’s governance norms, or mere hollow moralizing.
China and Russia will continue to resist U.S. and European attempts to pressure governments that are abusing their citizens’ civil and political rights, and they will continue to cloak that resistance in the language of defending African sovereignty. At stake is not just a tussle between major powers’ normative visions, but the question of whether the principles enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights are foundational to the continent’s governance norms, or mere hollow moralizing. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States, China, and Russia will all continue vying for the support of African states and looking for opportunities to accrue and maintain influence on African governments. For African states rotating through the Security Council, the opportunities to extract favorable terms from major powers will only grow, but so too will major powers’ attempts to leverage existing ties to secure sympathetic African votes. Even beyond the council, Africa’s substantial voting blocs in international organizations can decisively affect outcomes.
Access to resources
Framing major power ambitions in Africa as a competition for natural resources is often an unhelpful cliché, and the changes in oil markets and U.S. energy infrastructure over the past decade have significantly reduced the importance of oil in U.S.-Africa relations. But the technology economy requires rare earth minerals and other metals, such as cobalt, and as U.S.-China tensions persist, the United States’ reliance on China as a source of rare earth minerals will increasingly become a vulnerability, and African states will be desirable alternative suppliers. But China has already deeply penetrated the African mining sector and is unlikely to be passive as the United States seeks to establish new relationships and supplies of critical resources.
The U.S. campaign to dissuade governments around the world from relying on Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei has largely run aground in Africa. Huawei’s years of market dominance and generous financing deals in Africa continue to engender loyalty, and the company has gained access to critical undersea cables that transmit data to and from all parts of the continent. At the same time, the continent provides numerous examples of the vulnerabilities that concern the United States: Huawei technicians have helped African governments hack and track political opponents, and those disclosures have cast an unflattering light on China’s technology diplomacy. In the specific case of Huawei and in the broader arena of norms regarding using technology to influence and control societies, China is prevailing on the continent. As Africa becomes increasingly integrated into the global economy, this source of friction is likely to persist.
Areas of cooperation with china
Despite many sources of friction, the United States, China, and other powers share a number of interests in Africa. These include maintaining a free flow of commerce; raising prosperity, which translates into lucrative markets for goods and services; strengthening capacity to cope with global threats, including pandemic disease; and engendering the stability that enables these activities and precludes the need for costly interventions and relief efforts. These broad, shared interests can form the basis of a collaborative agenda—one that includes African partners from inception to execution.
The United States, China, Europe, and Japan share interests in freedom of the seas, ensuring that commercial shipping can proceed unhindered in the waters around the African continent. Building on the success of multilateral anti-piracy cooperation off Somalia’s coast, international actors can cooperate to ensure continued maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and to foreclose the possibility of regional conflict inhibiting commercial traffic. An even broader maritime initiative that would serve African interests could include cracking down on illegal fishing in African waters, a problem that requires commitment from both China and Europe to resolve.
Despite many sources of friction, the United States, China, and other powers share a number of interests in Africa. These include maintaining a free flow of commerce; raising prosperity, which translates into lucrative markets for goods and services; strengthening capacity to cope with global threats, including pandemic disease; and engendering the stability that enables these activities and precludes the need for costly interventions and relief efforts
As permanent members of the UN Security Council and the top two UN peacekeeping budget donors, the United States and China share an interest in peacekeeping reform aimed at making missions more effective and efficient. Despite significant philosophical differences between the two parties—such as the responsibility to protect—some divergences are complementary rather than oppositional and dovetail with Undersecretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix’s calls to link mandates and operations more substantially to political processes and development strategies.
Recommendations for the United States
Showcase U.S. competence and shore up the U.s. model of governance At the heart of China’s case for why it should be the model and standard-setter for governance in the future is an argument about efficacy. China claims that its particular brand of authoritarianism delivers real development and economic gains. State efficacy, then, is ground the United States should not cede. In pursuit of U.S. policy goals, Washington should continue to capitalize on areas of historical and technical strength in areas that matter deeply to Africans, such as a long-standing commitment to improving international food security, combating infectious disease, and bolstering health systems, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 response.
Modeling effective governance also requires emphasizing transparency and accountability. In keeping with its overall commitment to reverse democratic backsliding and pervasive corruption, the Biden administration should reinvigorate the United States’ commitment to the rule of law and transparency in Africa, which is vital as the continent continues to urbanize and questions about how governments spend revenue and execute policy become easier for African citizens to raise. Acknowledging that combating corruption is a shared priority rather than an Africa-specific project and supporting transparency mechanisms and law enforcement capacities makes sense for Americans and Africans alike, and success in this effort should broaden opportunities for U.S. investment. These issues respond to African desires, make the United States a more desirable partner, and bolster the argument for democratic governance norms.
Prioritize Africa in efforts to strengthen multilateral problem-solving
The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance references the need to “modernize the architecture of international cooperation.” To do so effectively, the United States will have to acknowledge that global governance should become more accountable and representative. Increasingly, Africans are rightly skeptical of international institutions and agreements that deny the region the same agency and voice that others enjoy. China will continue assiduously courting African governments to win support for its preferred policies and institutional leadership, and the United States should significantly elevate the intensity of its diplomatic efforts to do the same.
Moreover, the United States should make it clear that China is not the only major power attentive to African frustrations with international institutions. The United States should find a path that accommodates a more assertive Africa and protects critical elements of the international system it helped create. That will require rethinking U.S. comfort with the status quo when it comes to the structure of the UN Security Council, acknowledging that combating climate change cannot succeed without simultaneously and seriously addressing energy poverty, and most immediately, recognizing that the global COVID-19 vaccination drive is the kind of extraordinary situation that calls for waiving standard intellectual property protections.
The United States should support Africa’s subregional and continental integration and institutionalization projects, working collaboratively with the organizations demonstrating fidelity to their own stated principles and goals. Where that commitment is absent, the United States should frame its skepticism and distancing with explicit reference to those African-authored norms that are being disregarded and encourage reforms to resolve that dissonance.
The African Union, the African Continental Free Trade Area, and certain subregional organizations are embodiments of African aspirations to conduct rulegoverned foreign relations. Contrasted with China’s transactional, case-by-case approach in financing endeavors and Gulf actors in the Horn of Africa, working through African institutions and respecting multilateral African regimes helps bolster a global governance model suited to farsighted U.S. interests. These institutions will not always take positions aligned with Washington’s, but overall, supporting them for more effective dispute resolution on the continent is far preferable to an endless set of ad hoc, transactional approaches.
Investing in the future
Washington should also assess opportunities and investments to give greater priority to job-creating contributions. Education assistance should be more tightly linked to labor market needs of the future, and support for health-care systems should emphasize the strengthening and broadening of African health-care workforces.
Particularly in light of Africa’s rapid urbanization, opportunities abound in high-need sectors—such as affordable housing, smart water infrastructure, and urban climate resilience—that could provide employment and deliver the visible gains that China’s infrastructure projects deliver, particularly if the United States works in close partnership with other actors who have a stake in keeping China from an immovable influence across the continent. The Biden administration is well suited to undertake a more honest U.S. reckoning with climate change—the effects of which are already devastating parts of Africa—and to support a vision that expands domestic ideas about job growth by building a green economy beyond U.S. borders.
When it comes to technology and China’s dominance in Africa, U.S. policymakers should commit the resources and research required to bolster U.S. competitiveness. Pressuring African states not to build technology infrastructure with the lowest-cost option without providing competitive alternatives is a strategy doomed to fail while simultaneously casting doubt on the sincerity of Washington’s interest in shared prosperity.
China’s Digital Silk Road is an investment intended to yield dividends in influence. The United States can flag cybersecurity risks and the dangers of unchecked digital surveillance with African partners but ultimately will have to make its own strategic investments, mindful of African needs and priorities.
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