Competition-driven approach, geopolitical calculations won’t bolster US influence in Africa
Published: Jan 22, 2024 07:53 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

As the US grapples with a series of crises in the Middle East and Eurasia, its Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Africa. He is expected to visit Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Angola, in an attempt to prove "the US is a key partner on a continent where China and Russia have exerted their influence," as reported by the CNN on Sunday.  

The US State Department spokesperson described these African nations as "incredibly important countries" and "a priority." However, the US does not view Africa solely as a continent to develop ties with. Its particular attention on the continent is because of the "influence of China and Russia" there. 

The US media is quick to compare Blinken's African tour with the recent trip to Africa by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a tradition that started 34 years ago of making Africa the destination of the Chinese foreign minister's first overseas trip of the year. Song Wei, a professor from the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University, believes this shows Washington routinely views Africa from the perspective of competition. 

"Judging from the US' diplomatic strategy and global reach, Africa is always positioned at the bottom. Africa's geography and economic situation determine that the US will not prioritize it in its diplomacy," said Song. 

With the mentality of "US-centrism," US political elites seldom take a serious look at the international status of Africa. This can be seen from former president Barack Obama who hosted the first United States-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014 but whose Power Africa initiative fell short not long after its launch, to his successor Donald Trump who called African nations "shithole countries," to current President Joe Biden, whose administration sees Africa as a place to gain influence and compete with China.   

The US sets its Africa policy with the objective of preventing China's influence in the continent, rather than helping address the pressing issues that African countries desperately need assistance with. 

As the US' engagement with Africa is driven by a zero-sum mentality and self-interest, it is difficult for Washington to comprehend the Chinese approach - it is both courteous and pragmatic diplomacy for China to prioritize Africa as the destination for the Chinese foreign minister's first overseas trip of the year and maintain its commitment to the continent. From the very beginning, China's engagement with Africa has adhered to the principle of respecting Africa's own choice. China is willing to share its development achievements with Africa, inviting Africa to benefit from its progress and believing that Africa deserves modern development. Consequently, China assists in building infrastructure in Africa to enhance the lives of African people and empower them to forge their own path.

The US has its own infrastructure schemes for Africa, but everyone can sense the implication of competition. A Wall Street Journal article on Sunday detailed how a US-backed railway project helped "challenge Beijing's dominance" in Angola. In December of last year, the VOA reported how the US struck deals worth billions with African nations to counter China's growing influence. Huang Lizhi, a lecturer from the School of African Studies with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times that behind US projects is an invisible value orientation - the US hopes that by participating in its projects, African countries can adopt US values and align with the US when necessary. "This is the biggest difference from the respect that China shows Africa," said Huang.

Africans still have fresh memories of the proxy wars waged by the US and the Soviet Union in Africa during the Cold War, giving them a deep understanding of great power competition. As the global pattern changes, they are even more resistant to being regarded as a chess piece in major power games. African countries hope to maintain good relations with the US, but not at the expense of undermining China-Africa development cooperation. Huang views this as Africa's self-awakening. With the rise of groups comprising developing countries such as BRICS, Africa has seen the significance of strengthening cooperation with the Global South for future development and feels a sense of responsibility to promote a more just world order. A sustainable relationship with Africa requires respect rather than geopolitical calculations.