Africa’s relations quandary
The US-China-Africa nexus under a Biden administration
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.