Eager to move beyond past expressions of disdain for so-called ‘shithole countries’, the United States is set to unveil a new engagement strategy in early 2022. Meanwhile, China is intent on shedding its reputation for ensnaring its victims in costly ‘debt traps’.
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The evolving rivalry was on display last month as Washington and Beijing descended on the continent within days of each other.
In his first official visit as secretary of state, Antony Blinken travelled to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. He painted the US as a respectful partner keen to champion Africans’ democratic aspirations, not dictate who they should do business with.
The timing of [Blinken’s] visit made a lot of sense [given] the rhetoric of the US, with the Biden administration saying it has to really pay attention to Africa and it’s not going to shy from competing with China with real alternatives.
“We don’t want to make you choose,” Blinken said at a speech before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja. “We want to give you choices.”
A week later at the mostly virtual Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, China laid out a ‘new development paradigm’ led by Chinese private investment on the continent.
“The timing of [Blinken’s] visit made a lot of sense [given] the rhetoric of the US, with the Biden administration saying it has to really pay attention to Africa and it’s not going to shy from competing with China with real alternatives,” says Lina Benabdallah, an assistant professor of politics and international Affairs at Wake Forest University.
B3W vs BRI
Central to the US toolkit is the Build Back Better World (B3W) proposal that President Joe Biden unveiled at the G7 summit in June as a multilateral answer to China’s $575bn Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Spearheaded by Washington, B3W focuses on ‘human infrastructure’, such as health security, digital technology and gender equality rather than roads and bridges.
Another differentiator: Rather than relying on government funding, B3W seeks to mobilise private capital through public sector support. Agencies, such as the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which has $8.5bn invested across Africa, are to play a leading role in key sectors, including infrastructure, financial inclusion, women’s economic empowerment, healthcare resiliency and agriculture as well as climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience.
“Africa is a priority region for DFC,” says DFC spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala. “DFC’s investments in Africa support development and US foreign policy goals by serving as a stabilising force across the continent, particularly in fragile states that are vulnerable to violence and terrorism.”
Africa’s telecommunications sector, which is central to accessing the continent’s billion-strong market and its rising middle class, is also a key target. China has a leg up with its low-cost wireless-equipment makers Huawei and ZTE, which dominate the African market.
The US has responded by championing open-source technology; incentivising wireless carriers to go with alternatives, such as Ericsson, Nokia or Samsung; and warning African countries about the national security and privacy risks of choosing Chinese government-linked companies to build their next-generation high-speed networks.
We want to ensure we have a common understanding of the security threat posed by software and hardware provided by untrusted vendors beholden to broad intelligence and national security laws in systems that lack an independent judiciary and rule of law to protect companies and consumers.
“5G is transformative and will touch every aspect of our lives, including critical infrastructure, such as transportation, electrical distribution, healthcare, and public health,” says a State Department spokesperson. “Therefore, the stakes for securing these networks are high.”
Morocco, which has ambitious plans to expand 5G access nationwide within a couple of years, is a key battleground between Huawei and its western rivals, as regulatory officials determine the way forward.
“The United States engaged both the private sector and Moroccan government agencies early on to communicate our concerns,” the State Department spokesperson says. “We want to ensure we have a common understanding of the security threat posed by software and hardware provided by untrusted vendors beholden to broad intelligence and national security laws in systems that lack an independent judiciary and rule of law to protect companies and consumers.”
Africa is the new China
China is making its own adjustments. A slowing economy and crashing real estate market have constrained new government lending, with investment pledges at this year’s FOCAC forum dropping to $40bn from $60bn in 2018.
Meanwhile, African nations hit hard by the Covid-19 epidemic are defaulting on their loans, fuelling continental concerns that China could take over strategic assets despite Beijing’s adamant denials that it has any such plans.
The dual hits have prompted a fundamental change that will only accelerate in the coming year, as private Chinese companies attracted by Africa’s low labor costs ramp up their investment on the continent.
Investing in African-made machinery, for example, can help ramp up commodity exports to China’s voracious domestic market. At the same time, more and more Chinese companies view Africa as an attractive consumer market in its own right – not unlike how the United States viewed China before relations went south.
“China is going to invest more heavily via foreign direct investment,” says Shirley Ze Yu, the director of China-Africa Initiative at the London School of Economics. “China is going to move in very massively … into helping Africa grow its burgeoning industrial sectors and the service economy.”
According to Beijing, the ousting of Albert Yuma from the chairmanship of the Democratic Republic of Congo state miner Gécamines – after weeks of damaging corruption leaks – is part of a power play by the West to gain control of the minerals that will determine the next economic chapter of the world: the lithium and cobalt needed for the batteries sitting in tomorrow’s ubiquitous electric cars.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese-run joint venture Sicomines accused “journalists, activists and Western politicians of demonizing Sino-Congolese cooperation” which signed a $6.2bn deal in 2007.
The US and China are resolute to maintain access to these minerals. The DRC is a key battleground for influence.
The Kabila era, under which the 2007 deal was signed, was certainly a high-water mark for China, but the arrival of Felix Tshisekedi as president in late 2018 complicated the picture. US Ambassador Mike Hammer has been extraordinarily active, as have US financial institutions like Citibank, in helping to offer Tshisekedi different diplomatic and economic options.
Tshisekedi visited Washington DC in April 2019. A year later, he returned and announced at a meeting of the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC that he would appoint an ambassador to Israel for the first time in 20 years. In 2021 – the year that Tshisekedi decided to renegotiate the contract signed with China – the US gave $1.6bn to the DRC via USAID, and Tshisekedi met Biden on the margins of the G20 in October.
Avoiding a new Cold War
The question is how China will respond, faced with this reinvigorated US attention to the continent, including its desire to lock Chinese operators out of 5G supply chains. Are we at the dawn of a new Cold War? Or are there ways in which African countries can avoid a rerun of the 1980s?
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In early December, US intelligence were alarmed to discover that China was seeking to build a military port in Equatorial Guinea.
“Since 2015, China has been incrementally developing a systematic, pan-African approach to security on the continent. In September of that year, speaking before the UN General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping signalled Beijing’s focus on engaging African security mechanisms by pledging $100m in military assistance to the African Union to support the creation of an African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises”, writes Michaël Tanchum on the European Council of Foreign Relations.
“At the December 2015 FOCAC summit, China announced it would invest $60 billion in Africa – an unprecedented tripling of the amount pledged at FOCAC 2012. At the same meeting, China committed to direct military engagement with African partners and distributing $60m in military assistance, provisions that were incorporated into FOCAC’s Action Plan (2016-2018). “
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