It would be tempting to cast Chinese entry into Africa as stimulating a major competition with established Western powers in the continent. It is clear that Africa is an emerging strategic partner of China and Beijing is investing heavily in both commercial and political terms in the continent. This has some important implications for the United States, which has long seen a number of countries in Africa as important to its broader foreign policy, has extensive trade links with the continent and is increasingly viewing Africa’s minerals of strategic interest. Indeed, some over-excited analysts talk of a major competition between China and the United States in Africa – even the potential for future conflict between the two over (or in) the continent.
However, when examining Sino-African ties in the context of the United States, hyperbole about China’s role needs to be tamed. Although many African actors would probably like serious competition to exist, so that they can extract as much as possible from the various suitors, Washington DC does not seem overly concerned by China’s rise in the continent; the United States’ economic and political ties with Africa are robust and not threatened by Chinese interests.
Indicatively, in material leaked by Wikileaks, the American Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, appears relaxed about China’s entry into Africa. When briefing American diplomats in Lagos, Carson asserted that ‘The United States does not consider China a military, security or intelligence threat,’ although ‘China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.’ In fact, Carson made it clear that Washington would only start worrying if Beijing crosses some ‘trip wires,’ listed as China developing a blue water navy, signing military base agreements, training armies, or developing intelligence operations. Carson’s tone indicated that the administration did not believe Beijing had done any of these—or sufficiently proficient enough to cause concern.
Rather than being panicked by China’s rise, Carson in fact stated that ‘The influence of the United States has increased in Africa…The United States' reputation is stable and its popularity is the highest in Africa compared to anywhere else in the world. Obama has helped to increase that influence.’ In fact, Chinese economic and political influence in Africa has been overstated by many. Regarding Nigeria, for example, China’s ties with Abuja early on in the 2000s generated a great deal of excitement within Nigeria, encouraged by Beijing’s willingness to work closely with the Obasanjo regime. This situation has now changed. In fact, trade figures show China to be a relatively small player in Nigeria’s economy and is certainly not displacing either the United States or Abuja’s traditional trading partners.
The main challenge for both China and the United States is negotiating and confronting the reality of Africa’s political economy. This is something that no amount of high-sounding rhetoric from Beijing about fraternal ties and mutual benefits can hide or escape. Politics in many African countries has long been an open scramble for power in which elites compete for control of the state in order to capture the mega benefits associated with the country’s enormous oil revenues. This is the environment in which “new” actors like China must navigate their relations, but as other actors have found, this environment is inherently unstable and dangerous, where long-term guarantees mean little. Massive profits may be accrued quickly, but violence and perpetual crisis within many of Africa’s polities mean that the engagements China is pursuing in Africa will always be vulnerable. As a result, China may re-evaluate and reformulate its involvement. A more hands-on approach where both Chinese corporations and the state engage with domestic African situations is perhaps likely.
Interestingly, it is usually accepted that a chief guarantee that an investment will advance the host country’s interests is the length of the engagement and the type of the investment. Enterprises that have fixed assets such as factories, mines, or other infrastructures associated with them, such as backward and forward linkages, have a much greater stake in stability and responsible government than do short-term opportunists or offshore investors. China’s heavy involvement in fixed infrastructure assets and investments mean that Chinese companies cannot stand aloof from the very real problems that characterise much of Africa. Ultimately, rather than competing with the West, China must converge with American policy aims in Africa, even if this is so far unacknowledged by Beijing. As Peter Lewis notes: ‘‘economic revitalization depends less upon specific policy remedies or a fortuitous external windfall than on a new political approach capable of shifting the central institutions and social coalitions toward good governance and economic growth’’. Unless Beijing engages positively with Africa’s polities, confrontation with the dynamics of African politics might lead Chinese investors to retreat to the primary commodity sectors. China would then become just another actor in Africa’s enclave economies and non-industrialised sectors—a possibility, but wholly against Beijing’s rhetoric on mutual benefits and ‘win-win’ situations.
It is wildly unrealistic to pin Africa’s hopes on Beijing. But Chinese engagement with Africa often differs from America’s, because its interests are moving beyond offshore oilfields and primary commodities into the domestic economies, where Chinese actors are laying down permanent assets. I am not being overly optimistic in asserting that China can be a potential agent of change in Africa to be utilized in tandem with governance reform efforts. While Washington generally promotes governance rather than infrastructure enhancement and while governance, peace and security are crucial to Africa, reducing poverty and building infrastructure are critical to Africa’s development, which is where China may play its role. In such circumstances, the United States must engage Beijing in identified areas where mutual interests converge.
Ian Taylor is a Professor in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews’ School of International Relation.