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Updated Feb 5, 2020

The US Department of Defense and the secretary of state have been promoting an anti-Chinese sentiment regarding China’s fast-growing influence in Africa. The strategic American narrative is that the Chinese are in Africa solely to steal the continent’s resources, facilitate corrupt business transactions, and develop low-quality infrastructure projects with the true purpose of making Africa indebted to China for long-term economic blackmail. This strategy has been showing its cracks for years now, yet still remains widely understood dogma within the security community. The danger, as Caleb Slayton, former director of the Africa Theater Course for Special Forces, points out, is that this mode of thinking is rooted less in a critical appraisal of China’s foreign policy toward Africa than it is promoting a closed loop of information that confirms pre-established biases about China in Africa rather than adjusting to changing strategic considerations.

What distinguishes China’s approach to Africa compared with the United States is that the former deliberately prioritizes the African continent as a primary target for diplomacy and big-expense infrastructure projects. American strategic documents make reference to sub-Saharan Africa only in passing in most cases. When it is mentioned, it’s almost exclusively in terms of existing partnerships for counterterrorism efforts or the market potential of the region. Bilateral trade between Africa and China has topped US$200 billion, whereas the US lags far behind at just US$50 billion. American media outlets also indirectly promote a US-centric narrative, dominated by the considerations of the military-industrial complex in their reporting which rarely incorporates the wishes of China’s African partners or the reactions of their citizens.

More complete analysis of scholarly research and existing data shows that China’s behavior on the continent isn’t any more or less duplicitous than that of its American or European counterparts. Accusations that China largely employs Chinese laborers for infrastructure projects is largely misleading. Angola hires the lowest percentage of local labor for its Chinese-financed infrastructure, but still has 74 percent of their workforce comprised of Angolans. Concerns that Chinese investment is a manipulative debt trap ignores that China has in several instances adjusted its loans and shifted repayment demands to prevent debt crises. Ghana most recently organized a bauxite mining deal with China that, instead of an exploitative resource-for-funding financing scheme, will repay the costs of development via the sales revenue of bauxite sold at market price.

American analysts would do well to look more closely at what Africans think of China’s role on the continent. Largely, Africans hold the most positive outlook toward China in the world, only behind Russians and Ukrainians. Africans still maintain a positive attitude toward US investment, while also believing that China is more economically influential, showing that they are not choosing sides but aren’t taking the bait of China as the great red menace the United States portrays it as. There are numerous examples of China’s negative impacts, in Chad, for example, where oil investments did significant damage to the environment, with corruption being a primary cause for concern given the opaque nature of China–Africa aid and development negotiations.

Even still, China has a much stronger diplomatic presence within Africa that allows it to smooth out these kinds of mistakes while incubating stronger partnerships. Such rapport has brought success for China at the United Nations, where all but one African country (eSwatini) cut ties diplomatically with Taiwan and also supported a Chinese proposal to combat cybercrime. But outside these specific examples, China’s persistent diplomacy and ability to deliver on its investment projects has continually undercut Washington’s narrative. Africans can point to tangible proof of China’s presence as a benefit, whereas Americans seem to only offer criticism. 

If the United States is unwilling to prioritize Africa on the world stage and would rather combat China through information warfare, it would be better served to develop a communications policy that acknowledges China’s advantages for Africa; speaks more specifically to individual countries and ethnic groups over broad generalizations; examine its own past behavior toward the continent; adjust strategic communications as China’s activities shift; encourage African media to voice their own opinions without twisting their message to fit great-power competition narratives; and look to ways it can promote partnership with China in Africa to act as a pressure release for growing tensions in East Asia.

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