The US is using Africa as a stepping stone against China
Washington’s multi-billion-dollar investment pledge only exists because African nations are needed to counter Beijing’s influence.
Last week, the Biden administration hosted a summit of African leaders in Washington, DC. The meeting, the first of its kind in over a decade, aimed to increase US engagement on the continent with a view to countering China.
The US has become increasingly anxious about Beijing’s growing ties with African nations, accusing its rival of employing so-called ‘debt traps’ and other expansionist policies across the region. Accordingly, Washington now claims it will invest $55 billion across the continent in the next three years, although there is no indication as to where that money will come from.
The true goals of this effort are transparent, as illustrated by an AP headline that read “China casts long shadow over US-Africa Leaders Summit.” Washington’s message is summarized as “The US offers a better option to African partners.” If it wasn’t clear already, the US only has one thing in mind with its new-found love for Africans, and that is its own interest in countering China. Could it have cared less otherwise? Definitely not.
When the US takes an interest in your country, it will always frame itself as a messenger of the greater good and a representative of your ‘true’ interests. America has everything you want, everything you need, and you shouldn’t trust those other bad countries that you might be dealing with, because they definitely plan to use and abuse you. There’s been plenty of that on display at the China-Africa summit, even to the point that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin accused China, groundlessly, of destabilizing the region.
But the truth is that there’s a fundamental reason why African nations have been engaging more with China in recent decades, and that’s not because China is more cunning and deceptive, but rather because America’s record on the continent speaks for itself. US actions are a mix of a legacy of total negligence, foreign intervention in the form of military action or sanctions, or worse, the total depletion of African economies in the 1980s and ’90s through programs led by the IMF which forced brutal neoliberal austerity regimes on many countries and severely lowered standards of living.
The West also frequently accuses China of so-called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ in Africa, promulgating the claim that Beijing purposefully saddles African nations with debt in order to leverage strategic concessions from them. That’s precisely what the IMF did across the African continent, and such a legacy has been a historical driving factor in why China as an economic partner is now being preferred, despite the Western spleen over it, for in practice Beijing’s actions completely contrast with what the Americans and Europeans have done.
First of all, and what the US doesn’t seem to understand, is that China and African nations share a heritage of common revolutionary and post-colonial ties. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Africa became the world’s ‘youngest’ continent, figuratively, because scores of new nations emerged rapidly as they gained independence from European empires.
This changed the map of the world. Mao-era China, which was at the time also a post-colonial revolutionary state, was looked to as a source of support and solidarity during a time of Cold War turbulence.
The newly independent African states had to navigate the path between the US and the USSR. Many therefore established partnerships with China through the ‘non-aligned movement’, which became a beacon for ‘Third-Worldism’, in the sense of avoiding both political blocs in the midst of the Sino-Soviet split.
Mao-era China often gave political, diplomatic and military support to African revolutionary regimes. These included, for example, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in the Bush War in the bid to topple the British-affiliated apartheid state of Rhodesia. China thus became a symbol of African solidarity and resistance; its worldview resonated with Africans.
In the modern day, circumstances have of course changed. China is no longer the revolutionary state it was, yet its historic ties with Africa have remained and transitioned into new principles which still reflect non-alignment and ‘global South’ solidarity through the lens of multipolarity. Having developed rapidly, China has promoted its engagement with Africa in light of these legacies, vowing to help African countries move forwards, but in doing so avoiding the pitfalls they had with relations with the West. While Western countries make aid conditional on the imposition of liberal democracy and neoliberal market policies, China vows to respect African sovereignty.
Here’s one recent clear-cut example of Washington’s attitude. Going into the US-Africa forum, and despite being about to meet with him, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the son of the president of Zimbabwe, accusing him of corruption. Now, of course, corruption is bad if it is true. However, the manner and timing of this decision (which was deliberate) was both patronizing and insulting. It shows the US does not treat African nations as equals and does not respect their internal affairs accordingly. China would never do such a thing.
In this case, America’s intentions towards Africa are very clear to see. While African nations will be glad to procure more attention and more benefits from Washington, they are well aware it would be completely naive to place all their trust and faith in the US, a country which not only triggered some of their worst economic experiences, but also is only showing up because it has China in mind.
Do you think if African nations never engaged with China, such a summit would even be a thing? Africa only gets a look in because the US is obsessed with confronting Beijing at all costs. It is a stepping stone, but not an end in itself.