US-China competition continues in Africa – Community News
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US-China competition continues in Africa

Tyson Nuthu works in the outdoor industry in Nairobi and sees the presence of China everywhere.

“Look at all the construction projects from Ngong Road to the western bypass. Everywhere you look, China is active here in Kenya,” he said.

Kenya is following the path of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which funds infrastructure projects and develops trade routes connecting China to the world.

Africa is increasingly seen as a technology hub that is attracting the attention of the world’s superpowers, including China and the United States.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first visit to the African continent in mid-November. He began his tour in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, an American ally deeply indebted to China. His four-day tour also included visits to Senegal and Nigeria.

US vs China match

A study by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, described the U.S.-sub-Saharan African trade relationship as “underdeveloped,” despite the U.S.’s priority for sub-Saharan Africa’s exports under the Generalized System of Preferences.

According to the China Africa Research Initiative of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, annual US foreign direct investment (FDI) has been declining since 2010.

The first China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC), held in Beijing in November 2006, welcomed the adoption of a declaration and action plan for a “new type of strategic partnership”. Since then, the flow of Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Africa has increased significantly, exceeding that of the United States since 2013.

African views on the presence of China

But how do people on the African continent view this influx of Chinese investment?

In an interview with VOA, John Calabrese, the director of the Middle East-Asia Project at American University, said the distinction between government and society is critical.

This August 2020 photo shows part of Ngong Road in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi under construction.  The project is part of Kenya's effort to alleviate the growing traffic problem in the capital.  (Kang Chun Cheng/VOA)

This August 2020 photo shows part of Ngong Road in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi under construction. The project is part of Kenya’s effort to alleviate the growing traffic problem in the capital. (Kang Chun Cheng/VOA)

“African perceptions of Chinese investment vary widely,” he said. Chinese companies have imported workers and flooded markets with cheap items, causing “some resentment at the societal level,” especially among small and local African companies.

“Wide coverage – and to some extent exaggeration of cases – of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has caused some sort of backlash,” Calabrese said in an email. “To repair reputational damage and to protect and further promote its economic penetration on the continent, Beijing has sought to ‘review’ its lending practices.”

African views on US presence

Josh Maiyo, a United States International University lecturer specializing in political ecology between China and Africa, said the US has given up on the process of democratization in the wake of the war on terror. The primary focus is now on the security of the African continent.

“The rest of Africa has essentially been forgotten,” Maiyo said in a telephone interview with VOA. “From an African perspective, the US has countered Chinese progress more than anything else. They have been just symbolic agreements without concrete programs or coordinated, structural approaches.”

Sincerity is paramount for the US to have successful relations with African countries, said Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. When interviewed by the United States Institute of Peace last month, Carvalho said the African continent as a whole has too much experience with “the conditionality of engagements that reduces African voices to mere aid recipients rather than equal counterparts.”

“The US should be equally concerned with how its approaches are implemented and perceived by local and national actors,” Carvalho said. “Africans see very clearly that the United States is inconsistent in promoting transparency and anti-corruption policies – a principle that it dilutes in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. This can make Africans feel that the US is condescending in its relations with them .”

“US attention to Africa has increased and decreased over the years,” noted Calabrese of American University.

While pledges on global health threats such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and Ebola have been key, Calabrese remains concerned about continuity.

“U.S.-Africa policy may come down to a collection of ad hoc initiatives and not a coherent strategy,” he said.

This August 2020 photo shows a construction worker at the Ngong Road site in Nairobi.  Challenges with the project included delays from COVID-19 and issues with moving water and power lines.  (Kang Chun Cheng/VOA)

This August 2020 photo shows a construction worker at the Ngong Road site in Nairobi. Challenges with the project included delays from COVID-19 and issues with moving water and power lines. (Kang Chun Cheng/VOA)

US response

“As the United States and our partners continue to develop and implement the Build Back Better World initiative, we recognize that robust, meaningful partnerships are critical to ensuring Build Back Better World delivers infrastructure that meets the needs of countries with middle and low income earners,” a senior White House official said in a written statement to VOA.

Speaking in Nigeria on Nov. 19, Blinken said his journey reflected “the breadth and depth of our partnerships in Africa – how we work together to find innovative solutions to new challenges, and how we invest in long-term sources of strength, in instead of short-term solutions.”

In response to the VOA’s investigation, the US State Department referred to Blinken’s November 21 interview with the BBC, where he said, “Our Africa policy is about Africa, not China… in the world to make progress.” books for our own people cannot do without Africa.”

“We are delighted that the US is back supporting the multilateral system,” Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister, said in a news conference with Blinken.

“Our engagement in Africa, with Africa, our partnership with Nigeria, with many other countries is not about China or other third parties. It is about Africa. It is about working together to make the investment in Africa, the investment in its people, Blinken said at a press conference in Nigeria.

Ground perception

The perception and popularity of the US in Africa has been lukewarm by some, Maiyo said. “Traditionally, when the US Secretary of State visited Africa, there was a lot of anticipation. This time it hardly caused a stir.”

Analysts and people on the ground, on the other hand, are much more aware of China’s presence as an investor in Africa.

“[China] has a shock effect that creates a sense of awareness,” Maiyo said. “In terms of project scale, US infrastructure investment is not nearly as visible.”