Trump’s Africa Policy Is Destined for Failure

The Wrong Way to Counter China

Chinese and Nigerien construction workers work on a building site in Niamey, Niger, February 2016. Joe PENNEY / REUTERS

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

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