Cape Argus

US-Africa ties in relation to China

- DARYL SWANEPOEL Chief executive officer of the Inclusive Society Institute

WHEN US President Joe Biden assumed office in January 2021, analysts attempted to predict how the relationsh­ip between the US and Africa would unfold under his administra­tion. The relationsh­ip needed some healing given the decline in rapport between the two sides under the previous Trump administra­tion, where the US’s “relations with the continent flitted between perfunctor­y and hostile”.

In Biden’s address to the 34th Summit of the African Union in February 2021, he made it clear that the US stood ready to be a partner of Africa in solidarity, support and mutual respect.

Further evidence of its efforts to repair relations can be found in Biden’s virtual address to the AU Summit, positive decisions on US’s rejoining of the World Health Organisati­on and Covax. An important recent indication has been its support in helping South Africa strengthen its capacity for the local manufactur­ing of vaccines.

But the US foreign relations decline under the previous administra­tion was not restricted to Africa.

Across the globe, this held true. It was, however, especially severe between the US and China, where it turned into a direct trade-war confrontat­ion between them.

Analyses directly after the Biden administra­tion’s assumption of office was that, broadly speaking, there would be a normalisat­ion of diplomatic relations between the US, China and Africa. In this regard, general consensus was that the Biden administra­tion would build on and deepen the pre-Trump initiative­s as they relate to Africa and take a keener interest.

Similarly, the contestati­on with China would remain, especially as it relates to trade and human rights; but the narrative will be more civil and competitiv­e as opposed to the combative approach taken by the previous administra­tion.

On the one hand, prediction­s pertaining to how US-Africa foreign policy is shaping up seem to be, mostly, playing out as expected. There is a definite sense that the US’s policy toward Africa is normalisin­g. Indeed, continuity of Bush and Obama administra­tion policies, and even an expansion of US developmen­t agencies activity in Africa, could comfortabl­y be anticipate­d.

In the interim national security strategy, for example, the Trump administra­tion’s paradigms have been replaced with previous bipartisan themes. It says that the US will continue to build partnershi­ps in Africa, invest in civil society and strengthen long-standing political, economic and cultural connection­s.

This is given further impetus with the appointmen­t by Biden of a range of experience­d pro-African officials who could serve as strong advocates for a more strategic relationsh­ip with Africa.

An alignment is already developing pertaining to trade and investment, the fight against climate change and corruption, and public health.

The Biden administra­tion inherits important modes to support this – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), Prosper Africa, and Agoa, the African Growth and Opportunit­y Act.

Truth be told, however, is that the Biden administra­tion is battling to figure out its trade policy with Africa on a few key issues. For instance, how to take advantage of the African Continenta­l Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the undertakin­g to extend Agoa beyond 2025, and the proposed convening of a

US-Africa Summit. To date there have been mixed signals regarding how the US’s approach to China is being moulded. While the Biden administra­tion has “reaffirmed the desire for collaborat­ion and co-operation with China in areas that serve American interests, in sharp contrast to the ‘all-encompassi­ng decoupling’ policy toward China in the final year of the Trump administra­tion”, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, as late as May 2021, accused China of acting more aggressive­ly.

Some analysts are suggesting that the US is opening up new fronts in the trade war with China and in opposition to China’s alleged disregard for the US-led rules-based democratic and human rights order.

Their commitment, China argues, is to multilater­alism and not to the US-led rules-based order that represents a minority. The US’s approach, China senses, is motivated by a sort of Cold War mentality.

But, in their view, this is not the case. Biden laments the stiff competitio­n with China, inferring that its ambition is to be the leading, wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. China objects to this “China threat” narrative. The sense in China is that the US should realise that it does not represent the world and is no longer the undisputed global leader. That said, China has repeatedly stated that it is ready to engage the US on the basis of mutual respect and good faith.

All the while, the US has suggested that China’s growing influence in Africa poses a threat, leaving African leaders with the quandary: How to respond to the US-China nexus as it plays out on the African continent?

While Africa does not share their perspectiv­e on doing business with China, it does want to continue building its relationsh­ip with the US. The Biden administra­tion has, to its credit, made it clear that it does not expect African leaders to take sides.

During the past four to five years, China leapfrogge­d the US in Africa in terms of infrastruc­ture, technology and financing. It has also surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner.

Although they seem to be focusing on different priorities, areas of competitio­n between the two global giants will be renewable energy, trade and financing, with developmen­t financing being the key issue.

To navigate the relationsh­ip, Africa will have to contemplat­e a more considered and coherent framework, and pursue its home-grown solutions, ideally developed in concert with China and the US. Africa should seek a mechanism for triangular engagement between itself, the US and China. Enticing former African leaders that excelled in multilater­alism to facilitate this may be advisable. Who knows, such a continenta­l solution may even alter the global discourse for the good.

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