China continues to deepen its engagement in Africa on all levels. Recently it engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity with African countries. In March alone, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held bilateral talks with his African counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, The Gambia, Niger, Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia. The talks came only two months after Wang Yi visited Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros. Also in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, during which the two spoke about deepening cooperation between the two countries. Ramaphosa affirmed that he supports China’s policies on Taiwan, Tibet, and other «major issues».
Africa is important to China for several reasons. «Beijing has long viewed African countries as occupying a central position in its efforts to increase China’s global influence and revise the international order,» the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in its 2020 Report to Congress.
«Over the last two decades, and especially under General Secretary Xi’s leadership since 2012, Beijing has launched new initiatives to transform Africa into a testing ground for the export of its governance system of state-led economic growth under one-party, authoritarian rule.
«Beijing uses its influence in Africa to gain preferential access to Africa’s natural resources, open up markets for Chinese exports, and enlist African support for Chinese diplomatic priorities on and beyond the continent.»
While China has continuously been deepening its involvement in Africa, the US has not come anywhere near China’s engagement and high-level attention. Since 2011, trade between the US and Africa has been in decline. This inaction means that in the emerging US-China rivalry in Africa, China is far ahead.
China is now Africa’s largest trade partner. In 2000, trade between China and Africa had been at a mere $11 billion. From 2020 to 2021, trade between Africa and China reportedly increased by 35% — from $187 billion to $254 billion.
About 40 out of Africa’s 54 countries participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the global infrastructure and economic development project that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched in 2013. BRI aims to build an economic and infrastructure network connecting China with Europe, Africa and beyond, and has already strengthened China’s global influence from East Asia to Europe by making countries worldwide increasingly dependent on China.
While China has been increasing its annual Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in Africa — its FDI flows grew from just $75 million in 2003 to $4.2 billion in 2020 — annual American FDI flows to Africa have been heading the other way. «Chinese FDI flows to Africa have exceeded those from the U.S. since 2013, as U.S. FDI flows have generally been declining since 2010,» according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
«America cannot ignore Africa. Africa’s challenges, opportunities, and security interests are inseparable from our own,» General Stephen Townsend, Commander of United States Africa Command recently said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 15.
«Our competitors clearly see Africa’s rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage. China’s economic and diplomatic engagements allow it to buttress autocracies and change international norms in a patient effort to claim their second continent.»
Already in May 2021, Townsend had warned that China was overtaking America in Africa:
«The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa. Port projects, economic endeavors, infrastructure and their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa,» he said.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in its 2020 Report to Congress:
«China is dependent on Africa for imports of fossil fuels and commodities constituting critical inputs in emerging technology products. Beijing has increased its control of African commodities through strategic direct investment in oil fields, mines, and production facilities, as well as through resource-backed loans that call for in-kind payments of commodities. This control threatens the ability of U.S. companies to access key supplies.»
In June 2021, in an extremely belated attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Biden administration together with the G7 launched a new global infrastructure initiative, the Build Back Better World. According to a Biden administration fact-sheet about the initiative:
«President Biden and G7 partners agreed to launch the bold new global infrastructure initiative Build Back Better World (B3W), a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies to help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world…
«B3W will be global in scope, from Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa to the Indo-Pacific. Different G7 partners will have different geographic orientations, but the sum of the initiative will cover low- and middle-income countries across the world.»
The initiative, however, comes across as far too little, too late. Between 2007 and 2020, China invested $23 billion in infrastructure projects in Africa, according to the Center for Global Development, a US think tank. That is reportedly «$8 billion more than what the other top eight lenders combined, including the World Bank, African Development Bank, and the US and European development banks, contributed.» It will be very near impossible for the US or others to catch up on that, especially with the planned B3W initiative, because that initiative is not focused on much-needed tangible investments. Instead, its four focus areas are climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality.
According to Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development:
«More troubling is B3W’s apparent excision of hard physical infrastructure from its remit… In Africa, which lags all other regions of the world in the availability of paved roads and electricity, that deficit is set to grow without a massive influx of hard infrastructure investment… At current rates, the minimum deficit of the road network will be 60,000km by 2040 and an additional 30,000km gap for the rail network.»
In the absence of a serious coordinated international effort, China will go on to fill that infrastructure gap, as it continues to consolidate its influence in Africa while the US lags behind.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.
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This article first appeared at Gatestone, and is republished with its full consent.