Cape Argus

Africa’s relations quandary

The US-China-Africa nexus under a Biden administra­tion

- DARYL SWANEPOEL Swanepoel is the chief executive of the Inclusive Society Institute

WHEN the Biden administra­tion assumes office on January 20 next year, Africa hopes to exit the awkward diplomatic state of affairs presented by the current Trump administra­tion’s laissez-faire, even disparagin­g, attitude towards the continent, and the conundrum caused by the US-China squabble over the coronaviru­s and trade.

It hopes for a reset of relations to those pre-2016. What do analysts expect?

It was under the Clinton administra­tion that a sustained US-Africa engagement was developed. It deepened under both presidents Bush and Obama, during which period the US agenda in Africa experience­d remarkable bipartisan support in both Congress and the White House. Over the past two decades, Africa’s share of annual US foreign assistance funding increased markedly, with annual aid fluctuatin­g between $7 billion (R104bn) and $8bn.

Notable programmes receiving funding included Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunit­y Act, Bush’s Presidenti­al Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and Obama’s Power Africa and Trade Africa programmes.

In turn, President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy sadly meant, to a large extent, disengagin­g with Africa.

While Biden did not materially deal with Africa during the election campaign, Africa can take its lead from Biden’s stance towards the African-American constituen­cy, which was key to his bid to make America more of a nation that “belongs to all who live in it, united in its diversity”.

The Biden-Harris agenda for the African diaspora suggests a resetting of the US-Africa engagement to before the Trump pause; indeed, it may even be bolder. It asserts, among others, America’s commitment to shared prosperity, peace and security, democracy, and governance as foundation­al principles of US-Africa engagement, and the restoratio­n and reinvigora­tion of diplomatic relations with African government­s and regional institutio­ns, including the AU.

Biden, of course, has a personal history of defending Africa, and particular­ly South Africa, during the apartheid days. He has for many years served on the US Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee and has visited Africa many times. He understand­s the continent.

It is therefore quite conceivabl­e that the US will reinvigora­te Obama-era policies towards Africa – in particular, the signature Power Africa project, which was essentiall­y abandoned by the Trump administra­tion.

There is also almost certainty that positive movement will be seen in the Agoa (African Growth and Opportunit­y Act) discussion­s, especially important given that it comes to an end in 2025. That said, African expectatio­ns will need to be tempered. While US interest in Africa is bound to increase, it should not be expected to top the agenda.

The Biden administra­tion has many fences to mend, with those of its ally, Europe, and major competitor­s, such as Russia and China, requiring significan­t attention. The onus will, in fact, be on Africa to position itself as an active driver of the US-Africa relationsh­ip.

Perhaps the time is now ripe to encourage US-China trilateral discussion on African issues. There is much to be gained by co-operation in the fields of public health, maritime safety, and with regard to military and policing matters, where cross-regional co-ordination is vital to both domestic and internatio­nal interests.

One need look no further than the current impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which knows no border, thereby necessitat­ing global collaborat­ion among friend and foe.

Some Chinese and American diplomats have in the past promoted the idea of the two sides being responsive to the African agenda.

They are of the belief that though competitor­s, they should strive for win-win-win outcomes. The recent establishm­ent of the African Continenta­l Free Trade Area presents itself as a strategic opportunit­y to do so.

There have been some moves towards greater US-China co-operation, with suggestion­s for the US and China to work in complement­ary ways in Africa. An example is their shared interest in Africa’s stability.

Other promising areas for potential trilateral co-operation include regional economic and infrastruc­ture integratio­n, joint work to address corruption, and mechanisms to support commerce, which could, amongst others, include a unified approach to local content provisions.

Whether that is still possible in the wake of the escalated Sino-American tensions, remains to be seen. Africa, it is supposed, will take its cue from Biden’s ability to lead America back into the realm of multilater­al engagement. The prospects, therefore, are brighter today than they were yesterday.

Finally, the real question is how Africa is going to respond as a collective to the Biden administra­tion. It needs to act in a comprehens­ive and cohesive manner, by developing an African position as regards its expectatio­ns from the new US regime. In developing that response, it will have to look at what is in its interests.

It should avoid falling into the trap of, in a sense, reliving the Cold War by choosing sides. Africa will have to put its terms on the table and find a way to constructi­vely work with both sides.

Africa has, in the last decades, enjoyed good relationsh­ips with both the US and China, albeit on distinctly parallel tracks. This has greatly aided economic growth and stability on the African continent, while simultaneo­usly advancing global developmen­t and sustainabi­lity.

The relationsh­ip with China has, in the last four years, continued to blossom; with the US, it has, however, in large measure paused.

The approachin­g Biden administra­tion presents a unique opportunit­y, not only for the US to revive and bolster its relationsh­ip with Africa, but for it to also take a fresh approach in its engagement with Africa.

In recommitti­ng the US to multilater­alism, the potential exists for the US to reposition itself as both competitor and collaborat­or, thereby enabling itself to acquire its fair share of the opportunit­ies that abound in Africa. Such competitio­n would bode well for the continent.

 ?? | JAIRUS MMUTLE GCIS ?? DEPUTY President of South Africa David Mabuza visits the Mao Zedong Memorial in Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China, during his 2019 trip.
| JAIRUS MMUTLE GCIS DEPUTY President of South Africa David Mabuza visits the Mao Zedong Memorial in Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China, during his 2019 trip.
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