US sees Africa as a stage in its confrontation with China

Revamped relationship with the continent could mean more investment and less aid

David Pilling

US national security adviser John Bolton: ‘Under our new approach every decision we make, every policy we pursue and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities’ © AP

When John Bolton, US national security adviser, unfurled President Donald Trump’s “New Africa Strategy” in Washington this month, he cited an incident from 2018 in which the Chinese military allegedly shone blinding lasers into the eyes of two US airmen. The crew had been flying a mission over the strategic African state of Djibouti where Chinese and US soldiers have been peering at each other warily since Beijing opened its first overseas military base in the Red Sea port last year.

As in most of what followed during Mr Bolton’s address, Africa figured not so much as protagonist as backdrop, the green screen on which the important business of “Great Power” rivalry was projected. Yet the US initiative could turn out to be an opportunity for the continent’s 54 countries.

In the US policy document, China was mentioned 14 times. Neither South Africa nor Nigeria, Africa’s two biggest economies and Washington’s natural allies, got a look in. Russia, Mr Bolton’s other bogeyman despite its relatively modest African presence, got six mentions.

“The African strategy wasn’t really about Africa at all,” said Precious Lunga, a Zimbabwean health tech entrepreneur. “It was a riposte to China and Russia and almost felt like a return to the cold war, where Africa was an arena where these powers are going to fight it out.”

Mr Bolton painted an almost entirely negative picture of the continent: a cesspit of poverty, disease, terrorism and corruption. Though the continent has its share of these ills, he missed the progress made during two decades in which wars and coups have receded and many of the world’s fastest-growing economies have been African.

“This is such a reactionary document on so many levels,” said Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer-prize winning Nigerian commentator. “Reacting to China, reacting to Russia; without beginning to recognise the extraordinary power America already has on the continent.”

US soft power in Africa was unrivalled, Mr Olojede said, mentioning the cultural values of freedom and democracy and the life-saving HIV programme launched by former president George W Bush. “The US doesn’t need to compete with China on how many bridges it can build,” he said.

Mr Bolton said plenty to which few could object. The US should stop wasting aid money, he said, implying that the policy hitherto had been to pour US taxpayer dollars down the nearest village well. It should withdraw support for ineffective UN peacekeeping operations and remove its backing for corrupt governments.

“Under our new approach,” he said, “every decision we make, every policy we pursue and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities.”

If Mr Bolton’s view of Africa was reductionist, said many who heard the speech, so was his portrait of China. “China uses bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” he opined.

In Africa, the view is more nuanced. “China is welcome on the continent since we need roads and bridges,” said Mr Olojede. “And where they have gone too far and tried to exert too much control,” he added, referring to Beijing’s alleged use of debt to gain leverage, “the pushback is already coming. It doesn’t alarm me at all.”

Aubrey Hruby, co-founder of the Africa Expert Network, said some good could come out of a speech that at least sought to articulate a strategy. China, she said, had galvanised Washington into thinking more seriously about a continent where companies from Turkey to Brazil and from India to South Korea saw more opportunity than threat.

Until recently, for example, Mr Trump had been inclined to scrap the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, whose support of US businesses in difficult markets had been dismissed as corporate welfare. Instead, goaded by the idea that China was stealing a march in Africa and elsewhere, the president reversed course, more than doubling the corporation’s budget to $60bn.

Contrary to the stereotypes, investment not aid is a message that chimes in Africa. It has taken a Chinese laser to stir Washington into recognising it.

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