Spite Won’t Beat China in Africa
If the United States wants to counter Beijing’s diplomacy, it needs to understand why it works so well.
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi touched down in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Senegal in January, he was not there to cut the ribbon on the new roads and bridges that have been at the center of U.S. attention toward Chinese efforts in Africa. Wang’s trip, like many others made by Chinese leaders in the last three decades, was intended to reinforce the layers of networks and relationships that have been spun between Chinese and African diplomats, military officers, party officials, journalists, and civil servants.
Beijing says it respects all African countries as important partners regardless of size or power—as long as they disavow Taiwan—and its diplomatic practices do a lot to reinforce that. Since 1990, Chinese foreign ministers have made a point of picking Africa for their first trip of the new year.
If U.S. President Donald Trump, as his administration has stated, intends to have an Africa strategy centered on combating China’s reach in the region, the United States needs to recognize how China’s influence actually works. The kinds of ties exemplified by Wang’s visit—rather than more traditional points of attention, such as China’s growing financial involvement, its military base in Djibouti, or the Chinese-built roads and bridges in Kenya—give China its real advantage over the United States in Africa.
Although it is nowhere near flawless, a fair amount of consultation between Chinese and African counterparts goes into the making of China’s Africa policy. Chinese presidents and premiers make a point of making official trips to Africa as soon as possible after taking office. A closer look at high-level exchanges and official visits by China’s president, premier, and foreign minister shows that aside from Wang’s 2019 diplomatic visit, its top leadership has made 79 other trips to 43 African countries in the last decade.
China-Africa relations are certainly about infrastructure investments and natural resource extraction, but these go hand in hand with investments in people-to-people relations and sustained diplomatic outreach. Every year, the Chinese government sponsors thousands of exchange visits, short-term trainings, and scholarships for civil servants, young entrepreneurs, and high-ranking military officers. Just last summer, China held the first-ever China-Africa Defense and Security Forum, where top officials from 50 African countries spent two weeks touring military facilities and discussing security partnerships with their Chinese counterparts.
Then in September, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for 51 African leaders to participate in the seventh meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). This marked the biggest turnout by African leaders for a FOCAC summit to date. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who also serves as the current chairperson of the African Union, reiterated the perception among African leaders that “the relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual respect, and a commitment to shared well-being.” In contrast, equivalent recurring opportunities for tête-à-têtes with African leaders are hard to find in U.S.-Africa relations at present.
At the FOCAC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced during his opening address that “China will provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for seminars and workshops and will invite 2,000 young Africans to visit China for exchanges.” These trainings and exchanges provide a window into China’s history, culture, and development model, cultivating a sense of familiarity and vital connections for Africans who attend.
The Chinese government invests serious effort and funds into bringing African journalists to China for all-expenses-paid, short-term trainings and sometimes even degree-seeking programs to counter what it sees as negative narratives from the Western press. Speaking to a delegation of Kenyan journalists in China last fall, Zhao Lijun, the director of China International Publishing Group’s Training Center, emphasized that the program was funded and maintained because “people-to-people interactions are very important,” according to the state-run China Daily.
The expansion of Confucius Institutes across Africa is another part of the push worth engaging with. With more than 50 Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language, as well as the Communist Party’s version of Chinese history and culture, more and more Africans have the chance to study Chinese and travel to China on cultural scholarships. In 2015, approximately 50,000 African students attended Chinese universities, compared with 40,000 in the United States and the United Kingdom. Elementary and middle schools in several African countries are now offering Mandarin as a foreign language.
U.S. diplomacy lags far behind Chinese efforts. The delayed appointment of Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was yet another signal that African countries are not a priority within the State Department. African countries remain without a U.S. ambassador as the Trump administration enters its third year. Even in South Africa, where China has appointed Lin Songtian, one of its highest-ranking diplomats as an ambassador, the United States is still moving very slowly. These things matter.
But even more crippling to U.S. efforts may be the arrogance that oozes from the administration toward Africa, in contrast to the work done by the Chinese to present a relationship between equals.
In a December speech, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton launched a blueprint for the Trump administration’s strategy for future U.S. engagement with Africa. His views made it clear that Africa is valuable to the United States only to the extent that it can serve as a containment zone for China’s rising power. At the very moment that the Trump administration has expressed interest in drawing African governments closer, this reorientation of U.S. policy with recycled Cold War scripts is likely to alienate them further. Bolton’s zero-sum, clientelist approach looked more like the actions he accused China of than the reality of Chinese investment.
The administration’s factual sloppiness does little to endear it to Africans who often see their countries misrepresented abroad. During his speech at the Heritage Foundation, Bolton made an erroneous claim that China was poised to take over Zambia’s national power company, ZESCO, as a form of repayment for the $6 billion to $10 billion of debt the country owed to China—which Zambia’s government has denied multiple times. This kind of misstep does nothing to help the Trump administration make its case that it sees African countries as true diplomatic partners.
Bolton’s outline of the Trump administration’s approach, despite careful phrasing about the United States looking “only for reciprocity, never for subservience,” displayed a striking lack of interest in engaging African governments and people in their own right. Instead, Bolton opted to characterize leaders in the public and private sector as naive, unwise, and increasingly threatened by “predatory” investments and debt-trap diplomacy that Bolton claimed had rendered them “captive to Beijing’s wishes.”
Equally, when former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised a cautionary alarm for Africans to be wary of Chinese predatory investments just a few months ago, his lecturing tone did not go over well. Many African leaders reacted negatively to the underlying assumption that they were not qualified to figure out profitable from predatory investments on their own.
Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio rebuked the warning as misguided, saying, “We are not fools in Africa. … At difficult times, when we needed help most, China was there for us.”
Although it has become a stumbling block for the Trump administration, assuming Africans have no agency in their relations with China is a mistake. In October 2018, Sierra Leone canceled a $400 million airport construction deal with China on the grounds that it was too expensive. Kenya has repeatedly pushed back against Chinese labor practices. The Kenyan government deported a Chinese company employer who was filmed denigrating Kenyans and making racist comments. And recently, Kenya’s Sunday Nation launched an investigation into the terms of a contract for a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China to the Kenyan government for a railway between Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa. If Chinese governments officials or entrepreneurs step out of bounds and aggravate their African partners, they can and often do face steep consequences.
If the Trump administration wants to set the United States on a steady footing in Africa, it has to make more credible efforts to strengthen its relations with African governments and citizens of African countries. Although not exclusively directed at Africa, the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which passed in 2018 and established the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, has drawn a lot of attention in U.S.-Africa policy circles. The Center for Strategic and International Studies called the initiative, which is designed to boost U.S. investment in low and lower-middle-income economies, “the most important piece of U.S. soft power legislation in more than a decade.” However, if the Trump administration is going to learn anything from the Chinese influence that it is trying so hard to counter, a focus on new avenues for development finance should be paired with a marked increase in the flow of attention and resources toward the cultivation of enduring diplomatic networks.
The Young African Leaders Initiative, which brings hundreds of young people from all over the continent to the United States for professional development, is a good start. The Trump administration would also be wise to revisit the possibility of running an equivalent of the Barack Obama-era U.S.-Africa leadership summit. And although students are unlikely to be the first demographic to come to mind when it comes to strengthening foreign-policy ties, the importance of the Trump administration keeping the United States open to international students from African countries—rather than continuing to corrode well-worn paths to studying in the United States—should not be underestimated.
Rather than reducing U.S.-Africa policy to a reaction to China-Africa relations, the Trump administration would be better off cultivating durable and stable relationships with all African countries, not just the ones that matter to its rivalry with China. Chinese ambitions on the continent may not be entirely benevolent, but Beijing’s diplomatic approach is not only outplaying Washington’s but leaving a lasting impression across Africa.