Over a month into his presidency, Donald Trump has yet to utter a single word about his foreign policy vision for Africa. Given that the combative president has picked fights with Mexico, Australia and, of course the Chinese, while making antagonizing other long-term allies like the Swedes with false information, a lot of African leaders may actually be relieved that their countries and continent are not foremost on the administration’s priorities. Regardless, the president’s seeming lack of interest in Africa could have profound geopolitical consequences.
For years, the United States has positioned itself in Africa as an alternative to China’s surging influence across the continent. “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson in a secret cable released by Wikileaks in 2010. “ China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons, he added.” Two years later, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that warning, cautioning African leaders of a “new colonialism” by the Chinese in Africa. Former President Barack Obama, who is widely viewed as insufficiently engaged in Africa policy during his two terms office, clearly positioned the United States over China as a preferred partner for African states: “we don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources,” he told an audience of African leaders at the 2014 U.S.-Africa Business Forum in Washington.
Today, in what seemingly appears to be an emerging policy vacuum, the Chinese may now be free of these criticisms from Washington as the Americans simultaneously, albeit unintentionally, send a message to African leaders that their economic destiny will be more aligned with what happens in the east than in the west.
While U.S. foreign policy focuses all of its attention on issues in Israel, Mexico and Europe, China is quietly continuing to expand its already sizable influence in Africa. Seemingly every week, multi-billion Sino-African infrastructure deals are announced while Beijing puts the final touches on its new military base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti as part of its grand global trading strategy known as “One Belt, One Road” that will pass through several African countries. It’s a similar story on the trade front, where the United States is buying less and less oil from countries like Nigeria while China solidifies its role as Africa’s #1 trading partner with over 200 billion dollars in annual bilateral trade.
Even if the White Houses does begin to focus its attention on Africa, it may be too late according to Nairobi-based international development economist Anzetse Were. “Once a Trump strategy for Africa is developed,” she wrote in a January column for Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper, “China will analyze the trade, investment and financial gaps in the plan and act to further consolidate its dominance on the continent.” Now, as the rhetoric from the White House becomes more isolationist and even more polarizing, it will be even harder to change the course of Sino-African relations according to Were.
Trump’s chief political advisor Stephen K. Bannon has made it clear that the White House intends to fully disrupt the existing international order, either explicitly by cancelling trade deals and questioning Washington’s long-held alliances, or implicitly through neglect as appears to be the case in Africa which will have a profound effect on China’s steadily rising influence in Africa.
About Anzetse Were:
Anzetse Were is an economist, researcher and analyst with over 10 years of experience working in Africa on development economics, economic analysis and research, impact investment and enterprise development. Were is a weekly columnist for the Business Daily Africa whose work has also appeared in both local and international publications and websites. Her expertise in development economics has been sought out by local and international media houses such as BBC, CNBC Africa, The Economist, The Financial Times and local media houses.