The US should focus on soft power and China cooperation in Africa—not rivalry

The United States is unlikely to beat China at its African game of delivering low-cost infrastructure in exchange for resources and contracts.

21 December 2018 ·   4 min read

The US should focus on soft power and China cooperation in Africa—not rivalry

The Trump administration recently announced a long-awaited new strategy towards Africa.

It’s designed to be tougher in its selection of partners and to counter what is described as the “predatory” practices of China and Russia, which it says are “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage”.

National security adviser John Bolton outlined the new strategy in remarks at the Heritage Foundation. Russia, he alleged, is “seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings.” Russia and China’s efforts across the continent, he said, “stunt” Africa’s economic growth.

There is some to admire in the new strategy. It positions the US to “support open markets for American businesses, grow Africa’s middle class, promote youth employment opportunities, and improve the business climate.”

Nothing wrong with any of this, in principle.

The strategy calls for an end to the dissipation of aid across a multitude of projects and in the name of many causes. The US is the largest provider of development assistance world-wide and to Africa, spending $8.7 billion on the continent alone in 2017. USAID maintains more than two dozen regional and bilateral African missions. Nothing much amiss with this idea either. As Ambassador Bolton correctly noted, one of the comparative strengths of the Marshall Plan was in its targeting of key economic sectors. Yet problems in the operational ineffectiveness of aid is not only confined to Africa. It is also at least as much a donor problem as one of the recipients. The high transaction costs of aid reflect the multiple domestic constituencies in the donor countries that need to be assuaged, highlighting institutional priorities and politics that are seldom African in origin.

The strategy also says that the US will reassess its support for certain UN operations. There are longstanding concerns about ill-prepared UN peacekeepers intent on picking up the per diem rather than carrying out their military tasks.

The strategy also highlights the folly of giving aid to countries whose governance is troublesome, singling out the “morally bankrupt” leadership of South Sudan where Washington has expended nearly $4 billion in the last four years.

Again, whereas such a bold change might spur an improvement in the delivery of commitments, this is a problem less to do with Africa than among the donors and contributing nations.

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But there is cause for concern over some elements of the new Africa strategy.

Bolton said of China’s dealings with the continent that it “uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” Citing well-founded fears about rising debt in Zambia (which has ballooned nearly four-fold to over 70% of GDP in just ten years) and Djibouti (which has seen the strategically-vital Horn of African country effectively mortgage its container port to Beijing), he claims China’s “investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as US developmental programs.”

Still China’s relationship with the continent is not all bad. Far from it. Nor can we say that the US’ relationship with the continent is universally beneficial to all recipients.

China’s second coming in Africa—the first being a short-lived intervention during the wars of liberation in the 1960s and 1970s—has transformed the image of the continent from largely one of a problem to be solved to a commercial prospect. As a result, China’s trade relationship with Africa has grown this century from just $10 billion to nearly $200 billion, and its continental investment stake is now greater than that of the United States at $35 billion by 2017, with over $140 billion in Chinese loans committed to date.

While there is nothing wrong with greater competition over ideas, Africa is likely to resist making a choice between China and the United States. The US is asking African countries to choose sides at a time when many don’t have this luxury.

It would be more interesting to find the means whereby the two superpowers work together, though the strategy makes little mention of global interdependence as an operating principle.

This is worrying, since the history of superpower rivalry in Africa is messy, destructive and occasionally bloody. The continent should do everything to avoid this happening again.

There is another concern. The document stresses the need to combat terrorism, and to use foreign aid to open up US markets to African partners, with little recognition of the different levels of development, sophistication and threat across the continent’s 55 states.

Some fear that US relations with Saudi Arabia point to how Washington will approach African countries – you can do what you want (and get a lot from us) as long as you act as a partner.

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If so, this approach would dramatically undersell the US’ greatest African asset and its key distinguishing feature from China and Russia; not technology or access to the American market, but the values Washington represents.

Two-thirds of African polled routinely prefer democracy to any other form of government. Ethiopia’s recent turn from an authoritarian to a more democratic system makes lie of the notion that Africans prefer economic growth to human rights.

The United States is unlikely to beat China at its African game of delivering low-cost infrastructure in exchange for resources and contracts. Not only is the weight of population numbers on China’s side, but aid conditionality is likely to drive a race to the governance bottom, not the top.

Also, not too many Americans have the appetite for working in remote African environments for the same rewards as their Chinese counterparts. As a beacon of constitutionalism, instead the US should be focusing on how better to support democracy across Africa, fighting the battle for influence with tools few others possess.

The strategy does say that “Foreign assistance from the United States will concentrate on states that promote democratic ideals, support fiscal transparency, and undertake economic reforms.” While it points to the need for “prioritization” and not tolerating “ineffective governance” and subsidizing “corrupt leaders and violators of human rights”, the question is exactly ‘how’?

Washington can play a critical role in improving governance oversight and checks and balances on executive power by increasing support for parliamentary capacity, supporting greater transparency and vigilance over elections not least in having the means to identify tampering and guts to call them out as fraudulent, and a surge in funding African scholarships for the next generation.

The latter would probably, if it was to do nothing else, be the area where the US could achieve the greatest bang for its buck, both by Africa and in increasing its scale, power and placement of its own network. Putting just 20% of its African aid budget to scholarships, would enable 40,000 fresh students to attend US graduate courses.

That would really be generational and transformative, putting soft power to work, outsmarting China in Africa.

This article was originally published in Quartz.