In a December 2018 speech to the Heritage Foundation, the immediate past US national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s three-pronged strategy for rebooting its relations with Africa. These priorities include advancing U.S. trade across the region, continuing to combat terrorism, and making sure U.S. money for aid is used in the most effective and efficient way. What was more important, however, was Bolton’s mention of China. “Great-power competitors—namely, China and Russia—are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”

The Sino-US trade war, an integral part of President Donald Trump’s “America First” position, began officially in 2017 following what the Trump administration sees as its duty to address and reset years of unfavourable trade relations with the world’s second-largest economy. Trump announced general tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminium in March 2018. According to him, the decision to impose such a tariff was to help reduce the US’s trade deficit from China, which has been described as detrimental to the American steel and aluminium industries. More than 90% of the 5.5 million tonnes of aluminium used in the United States is imported.

The standoff between the world’s two largest economies has been viewed with growing concern by many African countries. While Nigeria and its African peers stand to benefit from an escalation of the rivalry in terms of increased Chinese involvement on the continent through infrastructural developments (According to the Berlin-based European International Contractors, Chinese companies accounted for 62% of the market share of infrastructure construction on the continent in 2018) and cheap loans, there are rising concerns within the continent over the long-term effect of renewed great power attention. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has warned that Africa is in danger of being caught in the crossfire. Despite this, political leaders and policymakers across the continent seem to prefer more not less engagement. Mr Kenyatta has also warned of the dangers of America being sucked into isolationism. 

American withdrawal from Africa means a redirection of its focus on its war against terror to their need to contain Russian and (especially) Chinese influence on the continent. From Mr Bolton’s speech, it now seems certain that decades-old American engagement with Africa would now be reduced to a game of competing interests where America wants to simultaneously reduce engagement on the continent while checking Chinese and Russian efforts to fill the inevitable vacuum that its exit would create. This trade standoff has been reflected in many speeches from the US warning about how China is using a debt trap as a tactic to control African economies. This view, which is also held in the major European capitals, has ratcheted up because many African countries have keyed into China’s Belt and Road Initiative much to the chagrin of the United States and its European allies. Furthermore, Africa presents a 54-member voting bloc at the United Nations (UN) capable of influencing resolutions in the General Assembly. America’s detachment and neo-isolationism have left it vulnerable to China’s growing influence in important UN vote and decision making, such as the Chinese sponsored election of former Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as director-general of the World Health Organization.

The perception of the generality of Africans and their governments’ engagement with foreign partners tilts towards pragmatism founded on expectations of fostering economic growth. The continent has a growing population which at a median age of 19.7 is the world’s youngest. The number of people in Africa in the 25-59 year age bracket – classed as the main working-age population – could hit one billion by 2050, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This impressive growth rate in the continent’s workforce coupled with limited economic opportunities presents an avenue for China to exploit the advantages of low-cost manufacturing and food growing at a time when its production back home is increasingly expensive and its population growth is essentially flat. 

According to Afrobarometer, positive public perceptions of China in several of Africa’s largest countries have fallen in recent years but only by a little. In Nigeria, public perceptions about whether China is a positive influence on the country fell from 67% to 62% in the five-year interval since the think tank conducted its last survey in 2015. In Kenya, the drop was a bit more pronounced, falling from 76% in 2015 to 65% this year. Overall, across the 18 countries that Afrobarometer surveyed in its 2019/2020 report, China’s overall approval rating is at 59%.

America’s aggressive posturing on the continent is already showing up in multilateral forums on the continent. The US’ attempt to counter China’s growing influence through investment in the continent influenced its decision to reject the initial findings of the investigation into corruption allegations on the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) President, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, mere months after he had signalled support for China’s mode of aid and investment in the continent. The US insisted on having an independent investigation, which eventually reached the same conclusion as the first, clearing the AfDB president of any wrongdoing. The insistence of America, a major shareholder in the bank, to have a second investigation was seen by many analysts as an extension of the Sino-American rivalry. This was made clear in October 2019 when Daniel Fitzgerald Runde a senior executive, strategist and expert in international development, trade and investment as well as a Republican Trump loyalist, noted that “the AfDB is an alternative to engaging in Africa that is not led by China and it can help reframe Africa as a tremendous economic opportunity.” 

For many African leaders, the lure of cheap and badly needed infrastructure, an endeavour where China excels at, supersedes the need to maintain long-standing political and economic ties to Europe and North America at all costs. Just to name a few, the Addis Ababa Light Rail is a 34-kilometre urban light rail line in Addis Ababa built by China Railway Group Limited in January 2012 and opened to the public in September 2015. The Tanzania-Zambia Railway runs 1,860.5 km from the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam to the city of Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia and was built with an interest-free loan from the Chinese government. These big-ticket infrastructural projects, as well as other forms of economic support, are often presented by Africa’s ruling elite to their electorates as achievements which illustrate the win-win nature of their Chinese partnerships. In disseminating this aspect of the China-Africa relationship, Beijing’s state propaganda has been a helpful compliment. 

For many observers, however, the likelihood of African countries to default on these loans is a source of constant worry, raising fears of a possible takeover of national assets as has been seen in Sri Lanka, which was $1 billion in debt to China, handing over a port to state-owned Chinese companies. In addition, Africa is becoming a useful piece in China’s increasing efforts to project global power. Djibouti, which is home to the main US military base on the continent -, Camp Lemonnier – has received significant investment from China and is now home to the US$590 million People’s Liberation Army Support Base, China’s first overseas military base.) This base, which is situated in the Chinese-operated port of Doraleh, gives China an ample foothold in the region as well as the Indian Ocean. Djibouti is perhaps an outlier in this regard considering its strategic position as a doorway to the Suez Canal and the fact that it is the country with the most foreign military bases in the world. However, China’s intent with the Djibouti base is clear, the Peoples Liberation Army’s role is gradually shifting from merely guaranteeing Chinese territorial integrity to providing additional protection for China’s growing interests around the world. 

Asides from the obvious unison in the stand against terrorism, there are important implications for Africa as America appears to be on opposing sides with some of its traditional NATO allies, a posture President Trump appears to have taken giving his commitment to putting America first. With Turkey and China’s increasing investment, military presence, and involvement in Africa’s geopolitics, the lines of American strategic realignment are increasingly becoming blurry. where Turkey has signed military agreements with Libya and Niger in direct opposition with the interests of other US allies. In Libya, for instance, Turkey backs the Libya’s Government of National Accord’s (GNA), which has put it in proxy confrontation with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France, who all back rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). With growing agitation and possible military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey, the former has chosen to opt for US support and to align its interests with US interests in the region. The possibilities of these confrontations escalating into a wider proxy war are significant.

Geopolitical alignments are rarely permanent and often evolve as interests cohere and collide. There is a slow but certain realisation in Washington as well as London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin that a more involved Beijing has upended the dynamics of engagement with Africa, one which goes back decades, in some cases even centuries. In the ongoing tussle for global primacy between the heavyweights, smaller countries will be compelled to pick their favoured side. The fact that many African countries feel compelled to pick and choose is illustrative of an emerging world order where the rules are changing and all is up for grabs.