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China vs. U.S. in Africa – Is China Pulling Ahead?

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In recent years, China has significantly increased its influence across Africa, winning favor through substantial investments and strategic partnerships. As the United States and other Western nations struggle to maintain their influence, China and Russia have made significant inroads, reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the continent. The United States is actively trying to regain its influence on the continent. Through strategic projects and partnerships, the U.S. aims to counterbalance the growing presence of its geopolitical rivals. However, this effort is fraught with challenges, including addressing the controversial “debt trap” diplomacy often associated with Chinese investments.

A Preference for China and Russia

The president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, expressed a clear preference for China and Russia over Western countries. “Oh absolutely! You don’t quite understand African realities,” Tshisekedi told French TV news channel LCI during a trip to Paris. He criticized the West for imposing their values on African nations, especially regarding human rights.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni echoed this sentiment, criticizing the World Bank and Western countries for funding “capacity building” but not critical infrastructure projects like irrigation or railways. “How many railways have been constructed or funded in Africa? The few that have been were by China,” Museveni stated at a development summit in Nairobi.

The Decline of Western Influence

These remarks highlight a broader trend of declining Western influence in Africa. According to a recent Gallup study, the United States lost its position as the most influential global power in Africa last year. Washington’s median approval ratings fell from 59% in 2022 to 56% in 2023, while China’s approval in the region rose from 52% to 58%. Russia also saw an increase in approval, rising from 34% to 42%.

The fall in U.S. approval was particularly dramatic in Uganda, where it dropped 29 points following the U.S. decision to drop the country from the African Growth and Opportunity trade program due to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. Despite the Biden administration’s efforts to engage more with Africa, the U.S. continues to lag behind China, which has been Africa’s largest trading partner and has bankrolled numerous infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative.

Major Projects and Investments

China’s investments in Africa are extensive and impactful. From railways and ports to power dams and airports, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has left a significant mark on the continent. For example, China has financed the construction of railways that have transformed transportation in various African countries. Meanwhile, the U.S. has pledged to refurbish the Lobito Atlantic Railway, a 1,300-kilometer project that will create a logistics corridor through Zambia and the DRC to the port of Lobito in Angola. However, experts like John Calabrese of the Middle East Institute in Washington believe the U.S. is playing “catch-up” with China and Russia.

Challenges and Criticisms

One major advantage China and Russia have over the U.S. is their lack of restrictions when dealing with African governments. Unlike the U.S., which is constrained by laws prohibiting aid to governments that came to power through coups, Beijing and Moscow have no such limitations. This flexibility allows them to form stronger ties with a variety of African leaders.

Additionally, China and Russia have successfully exploited the U.S.’s perceived failures in addressing global conflicts. They have aligned themselves with other members of the so-called Global South, criticizing U.S. policies and presenting themselves as more understanding partners. Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, noted that in West Africa, Russia has filled a specific security demand gap left by Western countries.

Strategic Partnerships and Projects

In Niger, for instance, authorities expelled American troops and invited Russian military aid, along with Chinese funding. China swiftly extended a $400 million oil-backed loan to Niger via the China National Petroleum Corporation. However, de Carvalho cautioned that China’s presence does not necessarily equate to dominance, as the nation is primarily interested in securing financial benefits and market access.

China has also opened a lithium refinery in Zimbabwe and signed a memorandum of understanding with the DRC and Zambia to develop a cobalt supply chain. These projects highlight China’s focus on securing essential minerals needed for the global energy transition, such as cobalt used in electric vehicle batteries.

The U.S. Strikes Back

U.S. Strategic Projects in Africa

The Biden administration has prioritized improving commercial ties with Africa as a key aspect of its foreign policy. One of the most significant projects is the refurbishment of the Lobito Atlantic Railway, a 1,300-kilometer railway that will create a logistics corridor through Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the port of Lobito in Angola. This $1.7 billion project aims to transport millions of tons of green-energy minerals like copper, manganese, and cobalt from the Congo to Angola’s coast. The U.S. government plans to lend $250 million to support the project.

“This first-of-its-kind project is the biggest U.S. rail investment in Africa ever—one that’s going to create jobs and connect markets for generations to come,” President Biden said, highlighting the significance of the Lobito Corridor project.

In addition to the Lobito Corridor, the U.S. Export-Import Bank is lending Angola $900 million to buy American equipment for solar-energy projects expected to supply power to half a million homes. This move is part of a broader strategy to promote renewable energy and support local economies.

Last month, the Texas-based All-American Rail Group signed a memorandum of understanding with the Angolan government to explore upgrades to another train route running across northern Angola. This route is more focused on agricultural trade, and the Angolan Transport Ministry estimates the investment could reach $4.5 billion.

Addressing the “Debt Trap” Diplomacy

One of the major criticisms of Chinese investments in Africa is the so-called “debt trap” diplomacy. This term refers to situations where countries are unable to repay Chinese loans, leading to a dependency on China and potential loss of sovereignty over critical infrastructure. Angola, for example, has borrowed $42.6 billion from China for various projects, leaving the country heavily indebted.

Shoddy work and maintenance issues have plagued some Chinese-built projects. For instance, the Luau airport in Angola, built with $80 million from China, now sits unused with no commercial flights. Similarly, the computer systems at the train station in Luena have been dysfunctional for years because the Chinese contractors left without sharing the necessary passwords. Such issues have created opportunities for the U.S. to step in with alternative solutions.

A notable example of these issues is the Benguela Railway, which stretches 800 miles from the Atlantic port of Lobito to the Congo. Sections of the railway, built by the Chinese firm China Railway 20 Bureau, suffer from poor maintenance and safety systems. According to Benguela Railway officials, the stations are run down, safety systems are often out of order, and trains are prone to derailment.

The U.S. Approach

The U.S. strategy focuses on offering high-quality, sustainable investments while promoting good governance and transparency. Unlike China, which often funds projects regardless of the recipient country’s political situation, the U.S. is constrained by laws that prohibit aid to governments that came to power through coups or have poor human rights records. This principled approach, while limiting in some ways, aims to foster long-term, stable partnerships based on mutual respect and benefit.

“What I ask Angolans is to give me the opportunity to present the U.S. model, to give me the opportunity to be at the table and to compete,” said Tulinabo Mushingi, the U.S. ambassador in Luanda, Angola’s capital. “I know that our model will be appealing to the Angolans at the end of the day. I know that they will choose us.”

The U.S. is also addressing immediate needs, such as de-risking projects and ensuring their financial viability. Calisto Radithipa, chief commercial officer at Kemcore, noted, “It’s not too late – opportunities for deals still abound. However, the U.S. has not been actively engaged or bidding aggressively for these assets.” He emphasized the need for development funding in the mining sector, where local entities lack access to capital markets compared to their foreign counterparts.

Competing with China and Russia

Despite these efforts, the U.S. faces stiff competition from China and Russia. Beijing has been Africa’s largest trading partner for years, with extensive investments in infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia, too, has increased its influence, particularly in West Africa, where it has provided military support to governments and gained access to valuable resources.

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, noted that in West Africa, Russia has filled a specific security demand gap left by Western countries. “The relationship between Western countries and Sahelian governments became so fractured recently that Russia took advantage of the void left behind,” de Carvalho said.

The Broader Geopolitical Context

Seifudein Adem, a research fellow at the JICA Ogata Research Institute for Peace and Development in Tokyo, argues that the shift in influence is rooted in broader structural changes in the international system. China and Russia, along with other emerging powers, are challenging the current liberal international order managed by the U.S. since World War II. This coalition seeks to replace the old order with an alternative one that favors counter-hegemonic forces.

“These forces are in opposition to some aspects of the current liberal international order that was created and managed – and mismanaged – by the U.S. since the end of the Second World War. China, Russia and others seek to replace this order with an alternative one,” Adem said. He noted that the new order is the “antithesis of the old and is in the ascendant,” while the existing order is “on the defensive and has inherent disadvantages in geopolitical terms.”

Despite these changes, some experts believe the U.S. still holds significant influence, particularly among Africa’s younger population. Michael Chege, a political economy professor at the University of Nairobi, pointed out that many young Africans still aspire to emigrate to the U.S. or European countries, indicating a lasting appeal of the West. “Africa is a young continent with 60 percent of the population under the age of 35. When asked by [public attitude researchers] Afrobarometer a while ago where they would like to emigrate to, the vast majority said the U.S. and the European countries. I don’t think that this has changed,” Chege said.

The U.S. is working hard to regain its influence in Africa by promoting strategic projects and partnerships. However, it must address the challenges posed by China’s “debt trap” diplomacy and Russia’s military support to African governments. The U.S. strategy emphasizes high-quality investments, good governance, and transparency, aiming to build long-term, sustainable partnerships.

As Africa continues to grow and its geopolitical importance increases, the competition for influence among global powers is intensifying. China and Russia have successfully positioned themselves as attractive partners through substantial investments and strategic alignments. While the U.S. is making efforts to re-engage with Africa, it faces significant challenges in regaining its former influence. The future will reveal whose approach will ultimately win the hearts and minds of Africa’s people – the weak, politically correct methods of the U.S. or the sinister but forthcoming money from China?

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