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Photo Source:  CGTN

US-China Competition and Cooperation in Africa: What is at Stake?

by Tsung Han Tsai 
         February 23rd, 2022

Africa tends to be one of the more overlooked continents when it comes to studying the great power competition between the US and China, where most of the tensions have been concentrated around East and Southeast Asia. This lack of concerns and interests over Africa is reasonable for a variety of reasons. The economies of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) only generate about two percent of the world’s Gross National Income (GNI), and the region’s overall level of international trade is relatively low (Price et al. 213). The economies of North Africa, unlike their neighbors in SSA, enjoy stronger international ties due to the region’s endowment of natural gas and oil (Price et al. 2490-250). However, the inherent volatility associated with these commodity-reliant economies poses a significant obstacle to achieving sustained development (Price et al. 249-250).

The continent’s general lack of economic presence on the global level is only one aspect of the longstanding disregard for Africa as the geopolitical priority for the US. In terms of the United States’ foreign policy agenda, Jon Temin, the director of Freedom House’s Africa Program, even argues that Africa has never been a top priority for the US and that most administrations “devoted only limited, episodic attention to the continent” (Temin). Yet, significant political, economic, demographic, and even technological changes have made the continent's geopolitical potential relevant to outside actors. The Chinese government is keen on seizing these opportunities and has been engaging in Africa on an unprecedented scale (Temin). This piece will provide a brief overview of these recent changes and how the subsequent development associated with these changes can affect US foreign policy goals on the continent.

 

Growing Economic Potential

The annual average GDP growth rate for SSA (as a region) was 6.2 percent from 2000 to 2009 (Price et al. 208). Although the 2008 financial crisis caused the average growth rate to slip to 4.3 percent, optimists still see strengthened democracies, greater civic engagement, less violence, and growing investments as positive indicators for economic growth (Price et al. 208-210).

Additionally, a surge in new infrastructures and technologies are also important indicators of economic potential. With the help of Chinese investments, Kenya recently inaugurated its first superhighway, the Thika Road, which now provides a stable route from the capital city Nairobi to the industrial town of Thika (“AfDB and Kenya”). Furthermore, it is also part of a larger transcontinental network that links Cape Town to Cairo (“AfDB and Kenya”). Two major railway projects to improve regional transportation are also underway. East African governments are currently investing billions of dollars in renovating and standardizing railroad gauges to link cities in the interior to the port city of Mombasa, Kenya (Gorecki). Several West African states have also announced plans to invest in integrated railroad networks in order to facilitate better intra-regional and inter-regional trade (Kuwonu).

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Thika Road, the new eight-lane superhighway connecting Thika and Nairobi, Kenya.

Source: Nairobi City County

Many scholars of international relations believe that such pieces of transportation infrastructure , when joined by emerging trading blocs such as the South African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA), and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), can better facilitate trade and thus improve the future economic prospects of Africa (Price et al. 213; Songwe).

Digitalization and Entrepreneurship

Another critical change in the transformation of Africa is the unprecedented level of digitalization associated with technological innovations. One example of such digitalization is the boom of “mobile money” on the continent. These digitized currencies are different from popular transaction apps like Paypal, Venmo, and AliPay in the sense that they are not linked to any underlying bank accounts because the telecom services process the transaction directly (Wexler). Furthermore, unlike the loosely-regulated crypto currencies, African governments can also work with these telecom services and effectively regulate the flow of money in the economy. Customers can just dial a code, enter the number of the person on the other side of the transaction, and then send the money by adding the desired amount (Wexler). By eliminating the need for internet access, these mobile monies have transformed commerce across the African continent by making transactions and microfinance easier—something that is critical for aspiring entrepreneurs (Wexler).

The prospect of a mobile phone-driven, cashless African economy has already driven a number of Chinese tech giants like Huawei and Kunlun to actively engage in this “fintech” revolution. Huawei, more specifically, has been providing mobile money platforms and integrating its technologies and services such that they are compatible with existing services, most notably its recent cooperation with Kenya’s M-Pesa program (Nyabiage).

Strategic Choke Points and Security Challenges

In geopolitics, strategic choke points are settings where “narrow waterways and narrow passages are vulnerable to military blockade and disruption” (Price et al. 227). Choke points are enduring features created by a region’s physical geography, and two of the most important choke points in Africa are the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb (Price et al. 227). While the Suez Canal has received more attention due to the recent incident associated with the blockage caused by the container ship Ever Given, Bab al-Mandeb’s geopolitical significance is not to be easily overlooked. In fact, as a critical connection between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, this location on the Horn of Africa is extremely crucial to the global supply chain and energy security—more so for an increasingly globalized, interconnected international community (Tanchum). In fact, the total petroleum that flows through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to Europe, Asia, and the US accounted for approximately nine percent of the global seaborne-traded petroleum (“The Bab el-Mandeb Strait ''). From 2014 to 2018, the daily flow of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products even increased from 5.1 million barrels per day to 6.2 million barrels per day, which further demonstrates Bab el-Mandeb’s strategic significance (''The Bab el-Mandeb Strait'').

This geopolitical significance of Bab al-Mandeb, and more broadly the subregion of the Horn of Africa, is often shown through the direct military presence of many superpowers. For instance, Djibouti not only hosts military installations belonging to the US, European powers Japan, and Saudi Arabia, but China also established its first overseas military base in the country in 2017 (Tanchum). The People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) also participates in the UN Peacekeeping force’s conflict stabilization campaign in South Sudan and anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden (Olander et al.). Its military base in Djibouti poses a particular security challenge for the US military due the dock’s capability in accommodating aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines (Tanchum).

On a continental level, Beijing has also been expanding its range of operations, as the PLA has engaged in post-conflict stabilization in Mali, medical humanitarian missions in Liberia, and more recently, planned to establish a permanent military base in Equatorial Guinea, which would give China a naval presence on the Atlantic for the first time (Olander et al.; Tanchum). This trend not only demonstrates China’s realization of its increasing stake over the continent’s security affairs, but also reveals Beijing’s clear trajectory of establishing a systemic, pan-African security agenda (Tanchum).

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Strategic Choke Points in East Africa and Middle East

Source: US Energy Information Administration

Through China’s extensive engagement in Africa in the form of infrastructural development, financial digitalization, and its expanding military presence in strategic choke points, it should not be surprising when mainstream media argues that China has sidelined the US in Africa (Liu). Moreover, an assessment of the United States’ current predicament also raises the question of “how we should respond” to African states’ increasing alignment with China. More and more policy analysts and stakeholders are now calling the Biden administration to rethink its role in strengthening American interests on the continent, with solutions ranging from more direct competitions against the Chinese sphere of influence to more pragmatic cooperation with China (Liu). Given our increasingly interconnected and complex international community, there is no easy answer to this question.

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About the Author:  Tsung-Han Tsai is a Discussion Contributor of the USCSSO and has primarily been responsible for writing the biweekly, special-edition newsletters and moderating student-led discussions about US-China affairs. He is a second-year student of the Elliott School from Taichung City, Taiwan. As a Taiwanese, he is particularly interested in examining the geopolitics of US-China competition and different patterns of international trade associated with great power rivalry.

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