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Washington Needs a Better Message in Africa Than ‘Don’t Trust China’

A critical Chinese-African summit offers a chance for a U.S. policy rethink.

By , a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and , director of external affairs at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and a former government minister in Mali.
Senegalese President Macky Sall at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation
Senegalese President Macky Sall delivers his speech during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, Senegal, on Nov. 29. Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese leaders are meeting this week with Africa’s political, military, and civil elites in Dakar, Senegal, for the eighth gathering of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). More African leaders have chosen to attend FOCAC than did the United Nations General Assembly, drawn to the former’s emphasis on cultivating partnerships based on national agendas.

For a long time, the United States’ main message to African countries was “We’re not Europe,” but since at least the early 2000s, China’s message to Africa has been “We’re not the United States.” China has made significant process in Africa by speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. Its public diplomacy campaigns focus on relationship-building with African counterparts and broad media coverage of all forms of cooperation, while simultaneously keeping sanctions and security engagements minimal.

In contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced that Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea would be ineligible for duty-free trade access to the United States starting Jan. 1, 2022, due to human rights violations in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and unconstitutional military rule in both West African nations.

Chinese leaders are meeting this week with Africa’s political, military, and civil elites in Dakar, Senegal, for the eighth gathering of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). More African leaders have chosen to attend FOCAC than did the United Nations General Assembly, drawn to the former’s emphasis on cultivating partnerships based on national agendas.

For a long time, the United States’ main message to African countries was “We’re not Europe,” but since at least the early 2000s, China’s message to Africa has been “We’re not the United States.” China has made significant process in Africa by speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. Its public diplomacy campaigns focus on relationship-building with African counterparts and broad media coverage of all forms of cooperation, while simultaneously keeping sanctions and security engagements minimal.

In contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden recently announced that Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea would be ineligible for duty-free trade access to the United States starting Jan. 1, 2022, due to human rights violations in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and unconstitutional military rule in both West African nations.

It is hard to remember the last time many African countries had their head of state photographed with a U.S. president, let alone received an invitation to visit Washington. Even when Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema came through Washington this September, he met with Vice President Kamala Harris but not Biden. And yet, a regular meeting with the president of China is something that every African leader (that does not have ties with Taiwan) can count on through FOCAC.

While FOCAC continues to be a successful tool for China’s Africa policy, it is a painful reminder of America’s diplomatic shortfalls in Africa. The United States does not need to create its own version of the forum to achieve the same successes, but it does need a policy toward Africa that plays to America’s strengths and recognizes the importance of relationship-building.

China has focused on economic engagements over and above security and normative concerns, and on face time with African leaders and people-to-people exchanges. At the last FOCAC event in 2018, China announced 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 short-term training courses. These are offered to university students, law enforcement officials, civil servants, medical staff, agricultural extension workers, and military personnel, among many others across Africa.

During fieldwork conducted in Zimbabwe in June and July of 2013, a senior official at the Zimbabwean Ministry of Agriculture said that the majority of their staff had already been to China for training, such that many were already going for their second round. No doubt this is a story that could be told across every ministry in every African country that has ties with China today. There is simply no comparison in terms of the depth and breadth of relationship-building that China has developed with African leaders and future leaders for at least the past decade.

To achieve the same level of diplomatic successes, the United States might need to get away from its punitive approach. More broadly, it might consider reassessing its reliance on measures such as the U.S. sanctions currently in effect on nine African countries, with Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea soon to be added to the list.

It may also need to reconsider a set of relationships that has been primarily driven by security concerns and think instead of economic ones. America’s counterterrorism campaigns in Africa have done more to define Washington’s relationships with African states than the election of the first Black president did. Since 9/11, the United States has built up a network of roughly 29 military outposts across the African continent. This network was necessarily established in collaboration with local partners and serves a vital role in supporting local security-building efforts in many regions. It highlights the United States’ capacity to invest in African relationships when necessary, but on its own it represents a foreign-policy strategy toward Africa that prioritizes the short term without greater concern for the long-term significance of the region.

Since 2009, China has consistently surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. As China has emerged as the world’s 21st-century factory, its appetite for raw materials has provided a solid bedrock for relations with African nations, and it is likely to do so for many years to come. No number of ominous speeches about the Chinese threat—or even Chinese actions such as reportedly bugging the headquarters of the African Union—are likely to erode this fundamental economic incentive.

In response, the United States is looking to reinvigorate its engagements in the region to counter China’s influence where possible. For instance, the Build Back Better World program and the Blue Dot Network are focused on countering China’s ever-trumpeted Belt and Road Initiative—without much thought as to whether the United States can, or should, be trying to compete with China on massive infrastructure projects.

Ultimately it is a positive development that the United States should wish to compete in building much needed infrastructure across the region, but it is hard to see how competitive U.S. firms can be compared to the Chinese firms that have been building roads and railways in Africa since the 1960s. And, of course, infrastructure is often an inherently corrupt and unprofitable line of business that Chinese projects on the continent have grappled with as much as anyone.

Arguably, this myopic focus on countering China’s economic engagements has blinded the United States to its own unique strengths. The prime example of this is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), due to expire in 2025, a nonreciprocal trade program that gives 39 eligible African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets. This has had catalytic effects on African industrialization, and many of the African manufacturers taking advantage of AGOA are exporting low-tech goods, like textiles, that they could not hope to export to China, as China still has jobs to protect in those same industrial sectors.

Some critics have pointed to the fact that several Chinese firms have actually relocated to Africa in order to take advantage of the opportunities presented by AGOA. However, this should be of little concern to U.S. policymakers. By relocating factories to Africa, these Chinese investors are creating jobs on the continent, spurring demand or supply for other industries, and creating the possibility for knowledge transfers and spillovers such that locals can replicate the industrial processes they are witnessing.

The fact that these Chinese investors may be benefiting financially takes for granted the much more significant contributions to economic development that AGOA has fostered in the few African contexts where Chinese-owned factories operate. This is still a policy that the United States can be proud of and would do well to promote among other wealthy countries.

Ultimately, U.S. policy on Africa is down, but it is certainly not out. Rather than trying to compete on fields where China is better established, it can play to its own strengths. Even though it is mostly virtual, this year’s FOCAC will be another important milestone for China-Africa relations. It is an invitation to the United States to consider what its own route for cooperation might look like in the years to come.

Correction, Nov. 30, 2021: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said the United States has roughly 29 military bases in Africa, but it does not have that many bases.

Henry Tugendhat is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he covers Chinese engagements in Africa. He is also a research fellow at the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Kamissa Camara is the director of external affairs and Africa policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and a senior visiting expert for the Sahel at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Until August 2020, she was chief of staff to the president of Mali, after holding the positions of minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, and minister of digital economy and planning.

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