It is almost three weeks since a large-scale war started in the Tigray region of Ethiopia involving a multitude of internal actors and external military players. That this is happening in a country where the African Union (AU) is rooted, with its overarching slogan ‘silencing the guns in Africa’, is puzzling, to say the least.
USA / China / Africa: Dear Mr. Soon-To-Be President-Elect…
It’s probably still too early to congratulate you since they’re still counting ballots in the last few states that’ll likely put you over the top.
But since the odds now seem in your favour, I thought this would be a good time to share a few ideas about your upcoming foreign policy agenda, specifically related to what the Chinese are doing in Africa.
You’re about to get hired for what seems like an impossible job managing an angry and divided America. There’s almost nothing that opposing sides in this country seem to agree on these days, so it’s going to be absolutely critical early on in your new administration that you move quickly to leverage those few areas where red and blue more or less see eye-to-eye. That’s China!
Opposition to China and Beijing’s growing influence around the world is now near-universal among major constituencies in the United States, so this is going be one of the few parts of your agenda where you’re not going to face a lot of pushback from either Republicans or the left flank of your party.
But for you to be effective, especially in a place like Africa, you’re going to have make some important changes in how your administration sees China and how it addresses the challenge. My apologies for being direct here but the reality is that the US approach to the Chinese in Africa, until now, has been an abject failure.
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And just to be fair, this isn’t just President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fault. The Obama administration’s policies were equally ineffective. So, these suggestions are aimed to help correct decades of misguided strategies:
You, personally, have to get in the game.
I know that you have a lot to do to repair four years of frayed diplomatic ties with our closest allies, renegotiating agreements that we jettisoned, and, of course, dealing with the pandemic. Obviously, you won’t have much time to devote to African relationship building. But you’re going to have to find the time, the same way Xi Jinping does.
Take a page from Xi’s playbook. He’ll carve out five minutes in his schedule for a photo-op, a web conference, or a phone call with an African leader and not just the bigwigs from the largest countries. Just a few weeks ago, Xi called the president of Malawi for a chat.
Americans generally don’t value that kind of personal relationship-building the way the Chinese do. But Africans do too, and that’s what’s important here.
Stop trying to compete with the Chinese.
You need to direct all of the relevant heads of agencies to stop focusing their African engagement policies on confronting the Chinese in Africa — everyone from the Pentagon to the State Department to the Exim Bank and, most importantly, the team at the Development Finance Corporation. Instead, you need to get them to develop policies that amplify America’s distinctive advantages over the Chinese.
The United States will never be able to compete with the Chinese on financing large-scale infrastructure, subsidising private industry, or even the whole-of-government approach that Beijing brings to its diplomacy in Africa. That’s just not the way we do things and you have to accept that.
Instead, the US should build on those areas where we excel and the Chinese are weak:
Education: We have the best universities in the world and Africa is a continent of adolescents eager to learn.
Services: We are the world’s leader in professional and technology services. Work with African stakeholders on how they maximise their investments in Chinese infrastructure to help make them more sustainable.
People: We have a long, complicated history with Africa and despite all the negativity, from slavery to s***holes, “brand America” remains incredibly durable on the continent. Given your own problematic relationship with the African-American community (1994 crime bill, Anita Hill, etc…), it’s especially important that you personally remove the student visa restrictions, fund the Peace Corps and create new opportunities for American and African youth to engage.
Forget about everything else, your foreign policy in Africa should be focused on one thing: JOBS.
Africa is facing the worst economic crisis in a generation, on a continent with the fastest-growing population in the world. When African leaders tell you that they don’t want to be caught in the middle of another U.S. great power struggle, listen to them. Then listen to what their priorities are and you’ll hear that it all comes down to creating jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.
Trust me when I tell you that no one, and I mean NO ONE, wants to hear any more American diatribes about Chinese debt traps, Huawei, or the dangers of the Belt and Road. This is precisely what’s not working.
Get your administration to focus on jobs. The Defense Department should help bolster African security where it’s weak to help people go back to back to work. The Commerce and Treasury Departments should help African stakeholders to negotiate better loan deals and improve transparency to help attract more FDI. The State Department should help to advocate for African small business interests around the world. AGOA needs to be renewed and expanded by your administration.
Take the lead on the debt crisis.
Many of Africa’s largest economies are sinking fast under the weight of unsustainable debt loads. They need help and fast. The Trump administration abdicated the U.S.’s traditional leadership role in international development finance, and you must urgently correct this decision.
Work with the financial services industry and Congress to relax fiduciary requirements to give pension funds, asset managers, and other private creditors more flexibility in negotiating debt restructuring settlements.
Work with Paris Club lenders to set an example by publishing all African loan data including terms and interest rates in an easily accessible database and then publicly challenge the Chinese government to do the same.
Personally lead the effort to provide African finance ministries with the liquidity and debt relief (not suspension but actual relief) they’ve been asking for over the past 7 months. Make it happen. They’re really not asking for that much.
There’s more, a lot more that needs to be done but given how much else you have going on, this will be a good start. Now, as you know, you’re going to face resistance from within your own cabinet on devoting so much of your time and resources to Africa. But you need to remind those skeptics that isn’t about Africa. This is about the U.S. By improving the quality of our engagement in Africa, you’ll more effectively confront the Chinese, rebuild our standing with the largest voting block at the UN and make the world safer for continued U.S. leadership.
But if you don’t take my advice and continue down the same path we’ve been on for the past two decades, well, let’s just say that none of that will happen.
Good luck getting through the next few days and with your transition. It’s not going to be easy.
Eric Olander, Managing Editor of The China-Africa Project