America's moment of truth in Africa - it's losing out to China

While the US sorts out its priorities, China has spent recent years investing more on Africa - in physical and financial terms, as well as in so-called soft power.
While the US sorts out its priorities, China has spent recent years investing more on Africa - in physical and financial terms, as well as in so-called soft power.PHOTO: AFP

CAPE TOWN (BLOOMBERG) - When a press release announced that President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton would unveil a new American strategy for Africa, it raised the question: What was the old one?

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the US risks losing sway over the 1.2 billion people who inhabit the world's second-most populous continent.

Bolton's speech on Thursday acknowledged as much, as he framed the administration's strategic rethink around countering gains made by the US's primary geopolitical rivals.

"Africa is incredibly important," Bolton said Thursday at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "If we didn't understand it before, the competition posed by China and Russia and others should highlight that for us."

But much of the strategy Bolton laid out, including counterterrorism and overhauling foreign aid, may result in a more narrow focus on the continent. And the administration's trade initiatives - Bolton said the US will look for bilateral deals - wouldn't arrive for years to come.

That means the US could miss investment opportunities in a region with the world's fastest-growing middle class, a continent that will account for half of global population growth by 2050.

Led by Ghana and Kenya, African nations are stitching together a trade union designed to bolster intra-Africa commerce. The initiative has a long ways to go, but if it can achieve critical mass, the continent's combined GDP would be almost the size of Germany's.

 
 
 
 

While the US sorts out its priorities, China has spent recent years investing more on the continent - in physical and financial terms, as well as in so-called soft power. It's ramped up scholarships for African academics, deployed peacekeepers to UN missions in Mali and South Sudan and sent scientists to help address key economic and social needs.

When Ivory Coast put out a tender to build a bridge over the lagoon in its commercial hub of Abidjan, 10 of the 18 companies that expressed interest were either Chinese firms or in partnership with them. None were from the US China State Construction Engineering Corp. got the deal.

Africa is a pivotal part of President Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road Initiative," with Chinese-backed investments ranging from Ivory Coast power plants to a Rwandan airport and a railway in Kenya.

"There is no way that America can really compete with China," said Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town, who dismissed Bolton's speech as "rhetorical swiping" at China and Russia.

"No real resources are going to flow" and those that do will probably be strategic, he said, targeted at places where the US has a military presence or terrorism concerns.

The US$191 million Ivory Coast bridge investment highlights how far ahead China is - now flexing its muscle in a part of Africa that until recently its business people showed little interest in: the French-speaking west. The region's fast-growing economies have also seen a spectacular rise in loans from China.

It's not that the US isn't engaged with Africa. The Pepfar initiative has invested over $80 billion to fight HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, providing nearly 15 million people with life-saving drugs in fiscal year 2018 alone. Aid programmes target agricultural productivity, health care systems and access to clean water. And the US is the single biggest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping missions China increasingly participates in.

But the US footprint is shrinking: Trump's administration has sought to reduce foreign aid - Bolton said a review of aid effectiveness is near completion - and the Pentagon has signaled it is shifting its focus to "great power" standoffs in other parts of the globe.

Symbolically, the administration has struggled to get past derogatory statements the president made about African nations last year.

On Thursday, Bolton criticised what he said was China's "strategic use of debt" to hold African countries "captive" to its demands, but he didn't outline any detailed strategy to counter that with US alternatives.

Russia-Africa Summit

One country that is offering alternatives is Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, is planning to host the first ever Russia-Africa summit with more than 50 African leaders next year. Lacking the financial muscle of its main rivals, the US, Europe and China, Russia is carving out a niche by shoring up strongmen in unstable but potentially resource-rich states who have a taste for Russian weaponry.

The Kremlin has found its task assisted by the US decision to scale back, said Alexander Zdanevich, an Africa expert at the St Petersburg State University.

"The diminished US role in Africa has made things easier for us - we don't have to glance over our shoulders and worry what they are thinking over the Atlantic about Moscow's actions," Zdanevich said by phone on Thursday.

Russia also has the advantage of being a less "overbearing" partner than either the US, with its demands for democratic rule, or China, with its policy of leaving nations with debt and pressure to balance those with key assets, he said.

'Tilt' Towards Beijing

Bolton criticised Beijing's engagements are "very systematically designed to tilt whole regions of the world" in China's direction, especially those rich in mineral resources, and said the US must "wake up" and foster independence for African nations.

But he also talked about winding down peacekeeping efforts, saying that African governments needed to do it for themselves, and signalled declining foreign aid.

"Bolton talks as if the US strides across the world in a way that the U.S. no longer does, for multiple reasons, and not just Donald Trump, because China is in the ascendancy," said John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

"What's really important is hunger and unemployment and the population boom and demographic implications and climate change and things like that which he doesn't even touch on."

China is focusing on exactly those issues, said Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and Polar Institute. She cited Chinese scientists who have been deployed to look at providing water in drought-stricken regions across much of Africa, something she said would be "a lifeline" for many of those nations.

"They're taking a long view, understanding what the needs of the countries are, whether it's in reducing energy poverty by growing their energy resources or providing water," she said. "We're missing this at our peril."