The first month of Donald Trump’s presidency has raised the specter of heightened competition between China and the United States. The tensions have been at their peak over issues involving the two countries’ trade policies, their roles in the South China Sea, and their policies toward Taiwan. But in Africa, too, Trump’s team appears concerned about competing with China, which is the continent's largest trading partner. Among a list of questions that the president’s transition staff submitted to the State Department about U.S. policy in Africa was one that asked, “Are we losing out to the Chinese?”
Many officials in Beijing and African capitals likewise believe that China and the United States are locked in a zero-sum competition on the continent. Such views have been common since the 1990s, when China began to accelerate its engagement with Africa by building infrastructure, investing in natural resources and other sectors, and increasing its foreign aid contributions to the region.
These attitudes, however, gloss over the opportunities that China and the United States have to work together. Despite the inevitable competition between the two countries, Beijing and Washington can still cooperate on issues where they share interests. In Africa, it should be clear to both sides that their shared priorities dwarf their differences—and that these priorities are also held by many on the continent.
Africans, Americans, and Chinese broadly agree on the importance of supporting economic growth and development, combating disease, mitigating conflict, enhancing political stability, and fighting violent extremism and organized crime. Because the basic objectives of China, the United States, and African states overlap, collaboration can offer real benefits to all three. What is more, coordination among Beijing, Washington, and African capitals is not as quixotic as it may sound.
Together with the African Union and the sub-regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the United States and China have already been working closely on the peace processes in Sudan and South Sudan, easing the contention between the two