Apr 25

China and the US – A New Scramble for Africa

An article by Ian Kilbride

A third scramble for Africa is unfolding – this time between China and the United States. The first notorious scramble saw the area of the continent occupied or controlled by European countries increase from 10 percent in 1870, to 90 percent by 1914. The Berlin Conference of 1884 essentially formalised the process of dividing up the continent among thirteen European powers (plus the United States), with the draftsman like borders agreed to surviving largely unchanged to the present. In essence Africa was treated by the colonial powers as a vast chess board in which the pawns were manipulated and controlled by white knights to achieve the wholesale extraction of vast natural resources not just for the glory of Kings and Queens, but to feed the veracious gluttony of European industrialisation and capitalism more broadly.

The second scramble for Africa was less extractive and imperialistic in nature, and more a strategic consequence of the Cold War. At its most extreme, Soviet supported states established Marxist regimes in countries ranging from Ethiopia in the horn of Africa, to Guinea in West Africa, as well as Mozambique and Angola in the south. The series of bloody and protracted proxy civil wars fought between pro-Soviet regimes and movements supported by Western interests resulted in millions of deaths, wholesale destruction of infrastructure, the dislocation of entire communities and intergenerational underdevelopment across the continent.

While no less strategic, today’s competitive scramble for Africa between China and the US is quite different in that it is neither territorial (yet), nor violent (yet). Rather, the competition between the two superpowers is largely driven by trade and economic considerations, but overlaid with considerations of global influence and the projection of power. Another key difference is that this time Africa has the opportunity to play both sides and benefit from the competition, if it plays its cards right. In other words, rather than viewing the great power competition as a zero-sum game, deftly handled, Africa can reap different benefits and rewards from either side.

So, what do the two major protagonists bring to the table and how can Africa benefit? The most important recognition is that by and large, China and US offer different benefits for the continent and go about delivering them through uncorrelated and non-conflictual vehicles.

China holds a key advantage over the US by virtue of its own form of one (communist) party rule. This allows it to engage in medium-to-longer term central planning not just domestically, but in relation to its international relations. In this regard, Xi Xi Ping’s 2013 ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is the centrepiece of China’s global economic diplomacy through which the Asian giant delivers much-needed infrastructure projects to 150 countries and international organisations. Travel though Africa today and you will see a benefit of the BRI in the form of bridges, dams, highways, harbours, airports and even parliaments. Of particular attraction for African political leadership, BRI projects not only ‘look good’, but don’t come with the terms, conditions and conditionalities often required or imposed by western countries and agencies. Moreover, the terms of payment for such BRI (and vanity) projects are often natural resource-based, rather than in hard currency. No wonder then that China is by far Africa’s largest trading partner and at US$250 billion dwarfing US-Africa trade fourfold. But it’s not just infrastructure and trade that defines China’s relations with Africa. Every three years the Forum for China Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) sees practically all African heads of state making the pilgrimage to Beijing not merely to kowtow, to the Xi dynasty, but to engage as nominal equals in planning the future development of the continent.

Where does this leave the US? In short – behind and with a lot of catching up to do. The recent low point in US-Africa relations was then President Trump’s 2018 reference to Africa’s “shithole countries”. But since his 2020 election, President Biden has been on a competitive charm offensive with Africa, commencing with his 2022 African leaders’ summit in 2022. At the political level, this was followed by sending a number of senior emissaries such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Blinken and Vice President Carmilla Harris to recover some of the diplomatic high ground lost since the departure of Barak Obama.

The US is by far the largest donor country to Africa and continues to exercise considerable influence over the IMF and World Bank’s Africa policy. Washington has also put its money where its mouth is by pledging a US$55 billion to Africa over three years, thus outstripping the previous FOCAC spend commitment of US$40 billion. While the US cannot compete with China on infrastructure spend (and why should it?), it brings other benefits to Africa with respect to technology, health, education and private sector investment. The signing of an MoU between the US and the African Continental Free Trade Area signals the important potential of Africa for the US as a relatively untapped market of over one billion, but the key challenge is for Africa to boost its imports to the United States beyond the current desultory 1,3%. The African American diaspora remains a relatively untapped resource and opportunity for stronger relations across all sectors, but this will require focussed attention and commitment to realise its significant potential across all sectors.

The global strategic landscape is, for once, becoming more favourable for Africa and the potential exists for the continent to turn the emerging competition to its advantage. To achieve this will require skilled and prescient African leadership, regional co-operation and a strategic view of how to position the continent as a ‘player’ in the new global configuration. As Pliny the Elder famously commented, ‘Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre”, Africa always brings us something new.

It’s time for new leadership to seize the new scramble for Africa and turn it to the continent’s advantage.

Ian Kilbride is the Chairman and CEO of The Spirit Group and an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch Business School