By Darius Shahtahmasebi
The US Secretary of State’s visit to Africa has more to do with China than anything else. After unveiling the first limb of its “Prosper Africa” strategy, the US finds itself further locked in a geostrategic battle against China.
Pompeo’s visit to Africa marks the first time in over 18 months that an American cabinet member has landed on sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Pompeo, the reason he is visiting Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia is because they are “three countries in various stages of development in their transition to democracy and their stability.”
The more likely reason though is to promote US investment as a genuine alternative to Chinese funding, all the while bad-mouthing Beijing (something Pompeo has been doing relentlessly for some time). However, Pompeo’s trip doesn’t appear to have produced anything tangible so far, other than anti-Chinese and pro-US rhetoric. Just by way of example, he wrapped up his visit to Senegal by stating that the two partners had had “a lot of conversation about security issues” but indicated this issue was still under review.
Given the Trump administration has begun targeting African nations by considering their inclusion in the infamous travel-ban list, cutting aid programs (or making them incredibly difficult to be implemented in practice), locals may be skeptical of the true motives behind this lackluster visit.
US’ ‘Prosper Africa’ strategy to counter Chinese influence
In June last year, the Trump administration officially rolled out its ‘Prosper Africa’ program at the Corporate Council on Africa’s US-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique. The Brookings Institute summarized the intent of this program relatively aptly when it posed the question: “Can Trump’s Prosper Africa make America greater than China and other partners in Africa?”
The official rationale behind the $50 million program (introduced by none other than disgraced war-hawk John Bolton) is to promote “prosperity, security, and stability in US-Africa relations.”
Unless they’ve been living under a rock, I’d be surprised if anyone actually believes that Africa’s prosperity, security or stability is anywhere near the top of Washington’s priorities. Under the Trump administration, the Indo-Pacific region has become the military industrial complex’s “priority theatre,” with Africa and the Middle East slowly dwindling in value. While Washington has talked big on Africa, its actions suggest it is hardly a continent that the US is looking to invest too much time, money or even American military manpower in.
That being said, the US will always have some cause for concern so long as China is expanding its influence in oil-rich regions centered in geopolitically significant locations. As it transpires, these three African nations in question are integral to Chinese interests, so it is no surprise the US made a show of sending someone with Pompeo’s status to talk with the leaders of Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia.
Specifically, Angola is the third-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and the region’s second largest oil producer. It is of key relevance to the United States for those reasons, as well as the fact that US corporate giants ExxonMobil and Chevron have significant interests of their own in the country’s oil fields; as do France’s Total and Britain’s BP.
Out of any country in Africa, Angola has received some of the largest amounts of oil-backed Chinese infrastructure loans. It is China’s second largest trading partner on the continent, and a key source of China’s oil: it will receive the bulk share of Angola’s oil production. China also owns approximately 70 percent of Angola’s national debt.
The populous nation of Ethiopia – the last leg of Pompeo’s Africa tour – is one of the main destinations for Chinese businesses looking to invest in the continent. The two nations have also demonstrated a keenness to further promote military ties. Ethiopia’s proximity to Djibouti, which houses an official Chinese military base, will also be of some concern to the powers-that-be in Washington, who further view Ethiopia as a key security ally.
Out of the three, it may in fact be Senegal that irks the United States the most. In 2018, Senegal joined China’s Silk Road Project – the first West African nation to do so. Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, is also hosting the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
In general, the African continent is predicted to have some 1.2 billion consumers by 2025. By the year 2030, consumer and business spending is expected to surpass $6 trillion. We can’t possibly have all of these consumers investing their hard-earned cash in Chinese-owned enterprises. This dynamic equation is not unbeknown to locals, as one African literally told the Washington Post that Africa doesn’t interest Donald Trump, as “all he cares about is money.”
However, America’s hypocritical behavior appears to be giving African leaders a sense of unease that the US is not going to look after their best interests moving forward. As a result, it is likely within its rights to rely less and less on a nation that helps sow instability and chaos in the African region, and turn instead to US adversaries.
Why Africa disagrees on China
It doesn’t take a genius to see why Africa is likely not getting too excited about Pompeo’s half-hearted approach to befriend key states in the region. The US has been hyping up its intentions for Africa all while combating China for well over a year, little has been done by US officials in that time to strengthen the relationship with Africa (even with the announcement of the Prosper Africa strategy).
In comparison, Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited Africa multiple times. In 2018 he visited Senegal to give Senagelese President Macky Sall the “golden key” to a $52 million wrestling stadium which came to fruition as part of a large Chinese aid program. Furthermore, the Chinese foreign minister has traveled to Africa at the start of every new year for the last 30 years. Donald Trump hasn’t visited Africa at all (but has made some genuinely derogatory comments about the region).
In light of this ‘which suitor?’ dilemma, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently said that Africans “don’t want to be forced to choose,” noting that “we must begin to look at Africa as the world’s biggest opportunity, and I believe you can dare to look at it with a fresh eye.” At the end of the day, African nations don’t want to be used as a proxy battleground for the US and China to engage in Cold War 2.0.
Broadly speaking, China is Africa’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to well over $200 billion. Between 2010 and 2016, Chinese investment in Africa doubled. In September 2018 alone, President Xi had committed an extra $60 billion in financing, which included $10 billion reserved for Chinese buying of African goods. The United States, on the other hand, has barely increased its investments since 2010.
Beijing has also lived up to its promises of canceling debt for struggling nations, further putting into question the idea that China is actively using “debt-trap diplomacy” to bring these nations to their heels. While the US likes to paint an evil picture of China as a predator pouncing on Africa and its resources, the truth is that African leaders are less likely to share this sentiment – and even less likely to believe that the US is genuine in its recent rhetoric.
The US is visiting Africa out of necessity to demonstrate its commitment to its America-First-China-Last foreign policy strategy, but is not providing any commitment to too much else.
* Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.