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Last week, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton announced a new U.S. Africa strategy. Bolton wants to advance U.S. trade and investment, suppress terrorism and conflict, and ensure that U.S. aid is well spent. At its heart, however, the strategy is about countering China. Bolton attacked Beijing for its “predatory” practices in Africa and vowed a determined response.
The administration is right to worry about Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy in Africa, and Bolton’s speech provided a welcome vision after two years of listless U.S. policy toward the continent. But the new strategy misses the mark. While the Trump administration focuses on the commercial threat from China, Beijing is investing in long-term relationships, not just trade and infrastructure. The United States needs to offer African countries a compelling alternative if it is to counter China.
The United States is right to be concerned about Chinese investment in Africa. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, more than 10,000 Chinese companies now do business on the continent, earning approximately $180 billion each year. Although the United States still has more foreign direct investment stock in Africa, Chinese investment in the region is growing fast. It more than doubled in 2016 alone. In 2009, China overtook the United States to become Africa’s biggest trading partner.
As Bolton noted, part of Beijing’s strategy has been to extend large loans with opaque terms to African countries, giving China leverage over national governments. But the Trump administration is wrong to cast Chinese commercial activity as all bad: in many cases, Chinese investment spurs growth by providing capital and much-needed infrastructure. According to the African Development Bank, African states need to invest $68 billion to $108 billion more each year in infrastructure to boost growth and need to create enough jobs for their booming populations. So it is understandable that African leaders welcome Beijing’s interest and deep pockets.
For its part, the Trump administration has been largely adrift when it comes to Africa policy. It has engaged little with African leaders. It has been slow to appoint people to Africa-related posts. And White House budgets have sought major cuts to the agencies that carry out U.S. policy on the continent. Nonetheless, the specter of Chinese investment edging out American businesses has had an effect. In October, U.S. President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation creating a new development finance institution with $60 billion to support U.S. companies in Africa and elsewhere. That new agency is sure to form one of the greatest legacies of the Trump administration.
Having decided what it is against, the Trump administration needs to decide what it is for.
As important as it is for the United States to invest in Africa, Washington shouldn’t see China’s activity as just about economics. Beijing is also deepening its political, cultural, and military ties to African countries. The Chinese Communist Party holds regular exchanges with numerous ruling African political parties. China now hosts more African university students than the United States does, runs nearly 50 institutes to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture in Africa, and is investing billions of dollars to expand China’s state-run news media in African markets. China also sells more weapons to African countries than it used to, is working more closely with African governments on military training and exercises, and contributes more to peacekeeping missions. Bolton noted China’s new military base in Djibouti, which sits just miles from the most important U.S. military base in Africa, but he overlooked China’s broader strategy to build relationships—and the influence that comes with them.
Because it has conceived U.S.-African relations so narrowly, the Trump administration has failed to offer a compelling alternative to China. The administration has made clear that it opposes terrorism, ineffective aid and peacekeeping missions, and Chinese and Russian influence. Those are reasonable positions, but they add up to a short-sighted and reactive vision, unbecoming of the United States. Having decided what it is against, the Trump administration needs to decide what it is for.
Previous administrations of both parties have gone beyond narrow self-interest when it comes to Africa by seeking to strengthen democratic institutions, defend human rights, fight disease, and support promising young leaders. But this time, even the positive aspects of Bolton’s new strategy, such as the commitment to deepening trade and investment ties, are plainly means to an end: competing with China.
Placing relations with Africa into a United States-vs-China frame is a mistake. It will alienate African audiences bysuggesting that they are simply pawns in a great power rivalry. This perception has plagued the West’s relationships with Africa for decades; embedding it in U.S. policy would be disastrous. Although China’s claims of mutually respectful, “win-win” cooperation are hackneyed and often wrong, they will resonate more than the Trump administration’s message: “We care about you because we hate Beijing.”
Worse still, there appears to be little substance behind the administration’s rhetoric. Achieving even the Trump administration’s limited aims will require more than the administration seems prepared to offer, which is confined to potential trade agreements and an inchoate initiative to support U.S. investment in Africa. It’s also difficult to take the Trump administration seriously given its poor record on Africa so far. To name just a few missteps, Trump has downsized a flagship exchange program for young African leaders, reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole” countries, threatened massive cuts to health and other aid programs, and left key ambassadorships unfilled. Although China’s growing interest in Africa long predates this administration, the Trump administration’s policies have undercut U.S. ties and ceded space for greater Chinese (and Russian) engagement. The new U.S. Africa strategy has no hope of succeeding unless Washington fixes the harm it has already done.
The United States should be motivated to engage African states for the same reason China is: Africa’s economic and political clout is growing fast. The continent boasts a young, burgeoning population, which, by 2050, will make up one-quarter of the world’s people and workforce. Buoyed by some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa’s annual consumer and business spending is expected to total $6.7 trillion by 2030. In the long run, U.S. economic competitiveness will increasingly depend on American businesses being able to succeed in Africa, and on African consumers being interested in purchasing American goods and services.
African states are valuable political partners, too. They can help the United States stem flows of cash to terrorist groups, halt nuclear proliferation, and enforce sanctions against North Korea, which maintains economic ties with around 25 African states. China is already using its ties with African governments to support its foreign policy goals, including isolating Taiwan and voting down UN resolutions critical of Beijing’s human rights record.
The new development finance agency is an excellent first move, but Washington will never beat Beijing at its own game: an all-out commercial, political, and cultural campaign led by the state. The United States should differentiate itself from China by staying true to its founding ideals. Only by standing up for democracy, human rights, and economic freedom can the United States both outcompete China and convince African audiences that the United States is the better ally. Not only are these values worth protecting in their own right; they matter for economic competition, too, since how countries are governed shapes their economies—and China is working to rig the system. Halting China’s rise in Africa will take a far more ambitious U.S. strategy than the Trump administration has offered.
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