Africa: Is It Time for a New Look At the U.S. Obsession Over Chinese Economic Influence in Africa?

Bottom Line

  • The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War left US foreign policy adrift until the rise of China in the early 2000s. This has been especially evident in sub-Saharan Africa where China's footprint has increased dramatically.
  • The US-China rivalry has often shaped US-Africa policy in ways that are detrimental to US-Africa relationships.
  • The United States has not offered a sufficiently concrete alternative to Chinese investment in African infrastructure development.
  • China's domestic economic problems have opened the door for the United States to change the influence dynamics in Africa if the government is willing to step up to the plate.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was a brief period in the United States where people envisioned the unipolar world, where the United States was the sole remaining superpower with unchallenged supremacy globally. Not everyone envisioned this in the same way. Some, such as US diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick, thought that the United States should learn to "be a power, not a superpower, and revert to the status of a normal nation," while columnist Charles Krauthammer declared the United States the "unchallenged superpower tasked with laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them." What all seemed to agree on was that there was no longer a superpower challenger to the United States. Threats would be diffuse and likely based on cultural differences rather than ideology, but they could be managed. In many ways, though, US foreign policy in this immediate post-Cold War period was in flux.

China Replaced the Soviets as the New Bogeyman

That all began to change between 2000 and 2010, when the People's Republic of China began its global economic ascension and its challenge to American dominance in the international order. The ensuing rivalry, while not in the nature of the ideological and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, has increased tensions between the world's two largest economies, and nowhere is it more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa, where the People's Republic of China has supplanted the United States and the European Union as a trading partner. China has increased its presence in sub-Saharan Africa in investment, trade, cultural, and security sectors, and is dominant in acquisition of the continent's natural resources and in export of Chinese goods and services. Between 2001 and 2020, for example, China's merchandise trade with the region surpassed both the United States and the European Union, with 25.6 percent of the trade compared to 10 percent for the United States and 8 percent for the European Union. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy involving infrastructure development and investments in Europe, Asia, and Africa, have in Africa led to Chinese companies dominating infrastructure construction projects. In 2020, for example, 31 percent of such projects in Africa valued at $50 million or more were built by Chinese firms, an increase from 12 percent in 2013. Western firms, which were responsible for 37 percent in 2013, only had 12 percent in 2020. In 1990, American and European companies had 85 percent of construction .

China's Expanding Influence in Africa . . .

The African component of the US-China rivalry has, because of this and other increased Chinese presence on the continent, become a key factor in US-Africa policy even when it's not explicitly stated. During the December 2022 US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, for example, in meetings with representatives of fifty African nationswhile the formal agenda included such issues as food security, global health, education, and US partnership with Africa, the rivalry with China in Africa was always lurking in the background and was no doubt discussed in private conversations. One example of how the rivalry with China impinges on relations with African countries is that, despite the pre-summit statement that increasing democratization on the continent would be one of the agenda items, due to the concern over China's efforts to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, the country's longtime dictator, was invited to the summit. This led to criticism of the administration's commitment to democracy and human rights. In a Foreign Policy article published on December 12, 2022, critics of the move are quoted as saying that the United States is "showing democratic activists in Equatorial Guinea and across other autocratic countries in Africa that its talk on democracy and human rights is just talk."

While some view these statements as unduly harsh and even perhaps a bit unfair, for the past two decades the United States has been obsessed with China's presence in Africa, often to the point of letting it distort US policy towards the continent in unproductive ways. Professor Rory Truex, an associate professor at Princeton University who focuses on Chinese authoritarianism, wrote in a May 2024 New York Times article: "America's collective national body is suffering from a chronic case of China anxiety. Nearly everything with the word 'Chinese' in front of it now triggers a fear response in our political system, muddling our ability to properly gauge and contextualize threats." Truex went on to say that this has led the United States to pursue policies ground in repression and exclusion, mirroring the very system they seek to combat.

. . . Is Now Contracting

In regards to Africa policy and US relations with the nations of Africa, has been seen in a number of situations--the incident with President Obiang's invitation to the US-Africa summit, when Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Eritrea were not invited, being one. The first four were snubbed because they had recently experienced coup d'etats and were suspended from the African Union, and Eritrea was not invited because the United States does not have "full diplomatic relations" due to continuing human rights abuses and military involvement in the Ethiopia-Tigray crisis. On the economic front, the US response to China's BRI in Africa is another.

The administration, while acknowledging that China's signature foreign policy initiative has encountered roadblocks and is in some cases stalled, it significant challenges to the United States. US concerns were based on several factors. While it was thought that China was pursuing BRI in the hope that it would absorb excess manufacturing and help ensure consistent sources of input for the manufacturing sector, the United States feared that the new trade routes would divert commerce away from the United States and Western Europe. It feared that an increase in China's economic clout to enable it to deter countries from going against China's interests and would grant China access to ports that would give its military more power projection capability. In addition, serious concerns were raised about debt and environmental sustainability. Many BRI infrastructure projects, such as the $3.8 billion railway between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa in Kenya, increased the debt-load of countries already in the hole. There have also been issues with the impact of these projects on the environment. These concerns notwithstanding, the United States has failed to offer a sufficient alternative to BRI in Africa beyond opposing it.

China's domestic economic issues have forced belt-tightening in BRI projects in Africa as well as globally. The Kenya rail project, for example, has run out of funds 468 kilometers short of its goal, forcing the government in Nairobi to resort to low-tech methods--such as revamping a century-old colonial rail line built by the British in the 19th century--to complete it. Chinese companies and government loans are no longer the support sources of choice for many countries in Africa. The contract for construction of a 260 km railway in Angola, for example, has been awarded to a joint venture Portuguese-Brazilian entity rather than a Chinese company, signaling threats to China's dominance of the infrastructure construction sector. According to the US International Trade Administration, in 2023, while China has provided financing primarily for air and rail infrastructure, US companies lead in the supply of aircraft and locomotives.

What Will/Can the United States Do About It?

China's scaling back of financial support for infrastructure construction in Africa opens the door for the United States and Western Europe to fill the void. The question, though, is whether or not the United States has the political will to take advantage of the opportunity.

Despite a definite advantage in terms of influence that the United States had in the wake of the Cold War, the attitude of benign neglect the United States displayed toward Africa opened the door for China's ascendancy. American companies were dominant in African markets during and after the Cold War, but by 2007, China had already begun to make its moves, beginning with an agreement to lend $5 billion to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for much-needed infrastructure construction. In return, China got access to the DRC's treasure trove of metals, such as cobalt, copper, nickel, and uranium, among others. China now owns most of the cobalt mines in DRC, which house most of the world's supply. Cobalt is needed for the most common type of battery used in the United States, but American companies not only failed to keep up with Chinese competition for these mines, but even sold their mines to Chinese companies.

Can this kind of blinkered approach to Africa be remedied? Unless the government changes its attitude, it's unlikely. With the weakening of China's economic position, there's an opportunity, but the United States must reinvent the way it interacts with Africa. The focus must be on what African countries need and want and how to form relationships that benefit the United States and Africa without making China a dominant factor in the equation. US policy statements must take a realistic approach instead of the "fire and forget" method, where the United States announces a great new policy but stop short of putting boots on the ground to turn the policy pronouncements into reality. Africa is the world's fastest growing population center and the youngest continent per capita. What many US policy makers and politicians on this side of the Atlantic don't seem to realize is that means that Africa matters. In coming decades Africa will have an impact on world affairs. Whether that impact will be good or bad depends on the decisions the United States makes and the actions it takes today.

What can the United States do to take advantage of the currently developing situation? To paraphrase former US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Herman Cohen in his article "The Time is Right for a US Pivot to Africa," engage, engage, engage.

Image: Kenya Railways

Charles A. Ray, a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, served as US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe.


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