China wasted no time in responding to accusations by top United States official John Bolton’s claim that its dealings with Africa are corrupt and predatory. It’s an oft-repeated charge, as the U.S. appears to realize too late that Beijing has spent decades courting the continent while Washington was, by and large, occupied elsewhere.
Bolton, the national security advisor to President Donald Trump, made the remarks during an overview of the new U.S. strategy for Africa last week. “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said. “Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as U.S. developmental programs.”
China’s initiatives, including the “One Belt, One Road” plan, all advance China’s goal of global dominance, he said.
On Friday, China’s ministry of foreign affairs accused the U.S. in turn of caring little about Africans while shaping its new “Prosper Africa” as a self-serving strategy aimed at countering China as well as Russia, which also found itself in Bolton’s crosshairs. Judging by the tenor of Bolton’s remarks, it’s hard to see why China and, for that matter, most Africans wouldn’t hear the “America First” priority, and Beijing was quick to counter Bolton’s message.
“When we Chinese people talk about cooperation with Africa, we highlight what African countries need, like industrialization and agricultural modernization,” said spokesman Lu Kang. “But let’s take a look at the Africa speech made by (Bolton). Besides talking about its own interests and needs, it has not Africa, but China and Russia, on its mind. Isn’t that interesting! Who is making efforts for the benefits of African countries and who is working with hidden motives?”
And indeed, U.S. officials do have China and Russia on their minds – with Africa hanging in the balance. Washington has been clear about shifting its defense and foreign policy priorities back toward its historic rivals, with plans to reduce its military presence in Africa. Bolton did champion the Trump administration’s desire to boost trade, at a time of heightened trade tensions with China, but also to tighten up its aid policies toward African nations.
“Americans are a generous people, but we insist that our money is put to good use,” Bolton said. Fair enough, and the U.S. commitments on health care or renewable energy, human rights or good governance are genuine. At the same time, though, Bolton accused China and Russia of engaging in Africa to advance their own security and influence, while stating they do so solely to “gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”
It’s as if 1.2 billion Africans aren’t even there, except insofar as they are still pawns in the global power game.
An invisible Africa, again
That attitude may be the single greatest error the U.S. is making on African policy. Trump has made plenty of missteps on Africa, from calling its people “vicious and violent” at a July NATO summit, to insulting its people on immigration, to delivering a wide-ranging, 35-minute speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September without ever once mentioning Africa or its affairs. It’s the same attitude displayed by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a May 2017 speech when he described Africa as a huge opportunity with “potential sitting out there, waiting for us to capture it.”
Never mind that he too was fired, ostensibly while mending diplomatic fences with African leaders. The point is, far too often the U.S. doesn’t see Africa at all except in relation to itself and its enemies and what it can “capture.” That’s a dangerous mistake to make when, according to UN figures, from now until 2050 half of the world’s population growth will be in just nine countries. Five of them are on the African continent, where China and Russia – and India, Turkey, Japan and others – also are investing in an African future.
It’s not that concerns over Chinese investment are unwarranted. Beijing’s influence reaches across the continent, far beyond the military base in Djibouti that disproportionately commands so much U.S. political and media attention. Just 10 days ago, when President Macky Sall of Senegal opened the new Musée des Civilisations noires (MCN) in Dakar to international acclaim, it was a pan-African dream realized with USD$34 million in support from the Chinese. The continent’s hydroelectric dams, its mines and factories, its hospitals and student scholarships, and its foreign investors reflect decades of China’s engagement. That’s a $440 billion opportunity for Chinese firms in Africa by 2025, according to a 2017 McKinsey report.
‘Africa has chosen China’
At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing in September, President Xi Jinping announced another $60 billion in grants, loans and investment incentives. That’s likely to mean more African debt, with legitimate fears – as now in Zambia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere – over what happens when Chinese loans don’t get paid.
Usually those fears are rightly framed as concern for the sovereignty of African nations, for their agency and right to self-determination and to the economic benefits of their own resources, and all the more as the planet faces the unprecedented challenge of climate change. Which is why it is maddening that the U.S. failed, yet again, to even see Africa or its autonomy as the framework for its “Prosper Africa” plans, beyond the requisite diplomatic lip service.
It “sees” China and Russia instead.
Yet until that happens, it should come as no surprise that China, whatever its ulterior motives, has an advantage, as perhaps do Russia, India and other African partners. “Leaders of Zambia, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire said on various occasions that Africa had long been colonized and such colonization was only followed by economic exploitation,” the Chinese spokesman Lu said, falling back on one of Beijing’s stock talking points. “Western countries feel anxious now because they see no opportunities of doing these things, so they start to focus their aim on China.”
As for the U.S., it should also come as no surprise that it’s probably too late to change its China-Africa reality.
“Africa has chosen China,” said President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso in September. “It is our choice and we stick to that.”
Image: South African government file