On September 3rd 2018, Xi Jinping has outlined the Chinese framework of engagement in Africa at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. On December 13th, the United States has presented its corresponding New Africa Strategy, a document in line with the Trump Administration’s «America First» policy. What do these plans reveal about the two countries’ approaches to the African states?
The New Africa Strategy specifies its goal from the very first lines – its aim is to further American interests on the continent. Although supported by three axes (bilateral trade agreements, counter-terrorism and tightening of aid), the document provides scarce information about structural programmes. United States looks at Africa primarily through the lenses of great power competition, albeit with a great desire not to be juxtaposed with China and Russia. The paper lists both states as the most dangerous encroachers on African prosperity. By focusing on vague, personalized promises of economic ties and security cooperation, the US averts connotations with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or similar infrastructural colossi; by explicitly referring to Islamist terrorism, it references the notion of global enemy currently in force.
On the other hand, China promotes an all-encompassing agenda. Reminders of a common, colonial past that the PRC shares with Africa are frequent, and the speech itself outlines eight areas of future cooperation – all based on non-interference (a core principle defended by China on the international stage) and multilateralism. Xi promises to integrate the BRI with similarly broad programmes by the African Union, the United Nations and the African states themselves. If one is to believe his words, Chinese presence on the continent is to be a trigger for structural change, experts’ training and entrepreneurship. Cultural exchanges and mutual learning – entirely absent from the New Africa Strategy – appear as one of the priority areas; a useful and especially needed space for China’s Confucius Institutes after they have faced a backlash in the US. Finally, Chinese contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions are presented as a part of broader security cooperation aiming to stabilize the region.
What the two documents reveal is the difference in how the US and the PRC perceive the cause of instability. Traditionally, the American understanding continues to focus on authoritarian rule and lack of personal liberties which constrain individual initiatives and impartial justice. As such, the US now reconsiders the conditions of aid, peacekeeping and official support in order to discipline wayward governments. On the other hand, the Chinese point towards underdevelopment and aim to counteract it with investment and state-building measures rather than civil society support. The changes in the funding structure introduced by Xi in 2018 (notably a focus on private investment and promotion of African products in China) are likely to enhance the diversity of Chinese entities currently engaged on the continent.
Both the United States and China seek to further their interests in Africa – however, it is the latter that currently presents a stronger, more convincible and sustainable agenda. Shared historical experience of foreign domination is repeated frequently, but a workable agenda is simultaneously proposed on its basis. Judging by the clearly positive perception of the PRC’s presence by the locals, the Chinese strategy of countering instability with development rather than values resonates among Africans. It does not mean that accusations of debt-trap diplomacy towards Beijing should be dismissed; it does signify that the PRC prepares the ground for its interests to be incorporated into the global multipolarity.