Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Can America Compete Effectively with China in Africa?

 Ken Opalo, Georgetown University, posted on 27 March 2023 a commentary titled "On America's Structural Inability to Effectively Compete with China in Africa." 

While the author makes some valid points, the overall analysis is excessively critical of the American ability to compete in Africa and understates the challenges faced by China. 

Beijing has over the past twenty plus years given a higher priority to Africa than has Washington.  While the future holds no guarantee, the Biden administration is clearly trying to rectify this long-standing deficiency in U.S. foreign policy.  It is much too soon to write off the U.S. diplomatic effort.   

In 2009, China did become Africa's single largest (the EU collectively remains larger) trade partner, passing the United States, which began importing increasingly less oil from Africa because of growing domestic production. China subsequently increased its trade lead over the United States and this is an area where America needs to do better.  At the same time, it is important to note that China has maintained a significant trade surplus with Africa for the past ten years, an issue that has become a concern for a number of African countries that have large and long-standing trade deficits with China.  On the other hand, African countries collectively have a trade surplus with the United States even after the sharp drop in oil imports from the continent.  

China does finance more infrastructure in Africa than any other country but nearly all of these projects are based on loans, often at commercial rates, that must be repaid to Chinese banks.  These are not Chinese investments except in the case of an equity component in some African ports; they are African government investments.  They are appreciated by African governments when they cannot find financing elsewhere.  Washington makes a much smaller contribution to infrastructure development through its support for World Bank and African Development Bank loans and Millennium Challenge Corporation grants.  

The U.S. private sector has not taken Africa as seriously as it should, but it is not confined as suggested by the author to oil and airplane companies.  Major American companies such as Caterpillar, Procter and Gamble, Ford, Google, Cummins, General Electric, IBM, and Coca Cola, to name a few, are active in Africa.  Total American and Chinese foreign direct investment stock in Africa is about the same.  

The United States has for decades been the single largest source of humanitarian aid, especially food, to Africa.  The author argues that U.S. humanitarian aid other than PEPFAR has had little impact on African development.  While that might be so, it would be worth asking the millions of Africans who are alive today because of American food donations over the years if they believe this U.S. intervention was helpful.  

The author argues that American food aid is tied to crops grown in the United States, which does little to boost African agriculture.  He acknowledges, likewise, that Chinese loans are tied to Chinese contractors (and I would add significant quantities of Chinese materials and even a component of Chinese labor) but they are good because they build things.  Remember these are based on loans; African governments pay Chinese companies for these projects but they don't pay the United States for humanitarian assistance.  

It is further argued that U.S. food aid focuses on marginalized African populations while Chinese loans for infrastructure result in projects that benefit more politically engaged elements of the population.  First, it's not clear that persons who survived famines in the Sahel or Ethiopia as a result of U.S. food aid decades ago remained marginalized throughout their lives and, second, even if they did, they are people deserving of help. 

The security sector is not part of the author's analysis.  It is true that China sells more arms in Sub-Saharan Africa than does the United States but Washington does far more military training and is generally more engaged with militaries across the continent than is China.   

The commentary does not deal with the issue of soft power such as music, sports, movies, media, and culture.  While the U.S. government has a minimal role in American soft power, it is an important part of American engagement in Africa.  China's soft power in Africa, especially control of media, tends to be government directed.  My experience in Africa is that American soft power is much preferred over Chinese soft power.

Consequently, I conclude that the United States is able to compete effectively with China or any other country in Africa.  It needs to do better, but it has the ability to compete with anyone and is doing so today.