Shifting US-Africa Relations
August 04, 2019
The US currently spends less than 1% of its budget on foreign aid and during the budget announcement for 2020, the Trump administration announced a deep 50% cut in aid to health programs in Africa. The US also previously enjoyed a prevalent soft power foreign policy influence in Africa, but the current administration waited two years to appoint an assistant secretary for African Affairs. This delay might signal to African countries a lack of commitment by the US and result in a waning US influence. But America’s decreased involvement in Africa presents to many others an opportunity for growth and partnership. The US is currently experiencing an end to a long-standing relationship with many African countries as other countries strengthen their alliances. Unfortunately, this loss in partnership may materialize in a weakening of economic and geopolitical power for the US.
The shifting US strategy has come at a time of rapid African growth. The UN predicts that the African population will double in size and eventually comprise of over 25% of the global population. This growing population is an untapped consumer and labor market, presenting great opportunities for private sector growth. For example, African household consumption is projected to reach $2 trillion within the next six years. African regional and continental institutions are also strengthening as critical political institutions. The African Union for example has become the third largest diplomatic capital in the world. Their agenda has called for infrastructure development, improvements in trade flow, and advancements in health and agriculture.
The lack of engagement by the US has left a rapidly developing Africa wanting more and other countries ready to act. Countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, and Russia have all taken efforts to invest in African development. India, for example, has increased their imports and exports to Africa by 181% and 186% respectively, making it Africa’s fourth largest trading partner. But the country with by far the fastest growing influence is China. China has become the world’s largest energy consumer and requires a sustainable input of energy to sustain its rapid economic growth. Appropriately, Africa has an abundance of raw energy and resources ripe for use that China is currently leveraging. In 2009, China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner and by 2016, China became Africa’s largest foreign job creator. Starting in 2006, China laid out plans for the future. It promised to invest in Africa by establishing a $3 billion preferential loan package, doubling aid to Africa, and training 10,000 professionals.
The window of opportunity for the US to maintain its presence in Africa is closing. China has long surpassed US investment in the area. If the US does not start increasing its attention within the region, it is at risk of being cutting off from African markets. In 2013, the Obama administration implemented programs to incentivize increased business operations in Africa. Although unsuccessful, the initiative tapped into the link between government involvement and private sector success. In contrast, the Chinese government has been investing heavily in African infrastructure partly for developmental purposes, but also to satisfy private investment demands to create a viable location for industry. As such, China is currently operating in a way that undermines US strengths and interests in the region.
The Chinese government is also starting to build ports and military bases that could choke off US access to global markets. China just constructed its first overseas military base in Djibouti which also happens to be the location of the only US military base in Africa. These areas are of great economic and strategic importance. For example, building a facility along the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden could give China access to major oil markets that currently ship about 5 million barrels a day. Additionally, Djibouti has taken on a lot of debt from Chinese loans. After accepting Chinese loans, the small city’s debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 50 to 85 percent between 2014 and 2016. If Djibouti were to default and give up the port that supplies the US base, American involvement in the Middle East would be threatened. All of this leads to a blow in American hegemony worldwide. Despite the Western narrative that China is preying on African countries, not everyone feels this way. African learners understand the faults of Chinese assistance but generally recognize it as a good thing. America has long enjoyed diplomatic influence in Africa but may not enjoy that same partnership as China presents inciting and mutually beneficial opportunities. This weakening relationship could prove detrimental to both American commercial and strategic interests.
If the US wants to compete with China in the global market, it must look to increase its influence in Africa. The US should invest in technology sectors such as artificial intelligence and next-generation mobile communications to re-establish US dominance as a modern country but also as an investment in regional infrastructure. We should also invest in the foundations that create a sustainable emerging economy. These sectors include public education, infrastructure, government building, and research and development. We can achieve this by working multilaterally with organizations like the EU which have the resources to form a united front against China. Initiatives like USAID’s Power Africa are examples of how development can strengthen economic ties. The program relies on public, private partnerships to create farmers’ cooperatives, develop infrastructure, and increase bi-lateral trade and investment between Africa and the US. Unfortunately for the US, other countries—especially China—are investing in these programs which strengthen relationships in Africa and the US is quickly falling behind. This weakening position could jeopardize the US economy as China tightens its hold on private sector engagement in Africa, oil markets through northern Africa, and soft power influence. But the United States’ decades long relationship with Africa is not all lost. Investing in long term solutions and institutions can solidify American market presence and re-establish US dominance in the region.
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