Skip to content
Africa, China, Belt and Road

The US Needs a More Nuanced Approach to Africa

US engagement with African countries shouldn't depend on China.

Words: Joseph Sany
Pictures: Nuno Silva

The Biden administration has sought to make its policy toward Africa clear: Trade and investment with the continent will not be framed as competition with China. That was the message its top Africa officials delivered in their recent roll out of a revamped “Prosper Africa” policy, designed to increase US–Africa trade and investment. This is welcome news to many Africans, who largely disapproved of the Trump administration’s focus on countering China on the continent

The definitive change in tone from the last administration is important, but US policy should match this rhetoric and support Africans in better managing China’s ever-increasing presence on the continent, while still aggressively competing with Beijing. Yet, when the interests of Washington, Beijing, and Africans converge, the US should also seek to cooperate with China. While the US shouldn’t let others dictate its policies, effective foreign policy is sensitive to other countries’ views and interests. Africans, overall, aren’t anti-China — and they don’t want to be a pawn on the great power chessboard. It’s important for the Biden administration, therefore, to find areas of convergence with China in Africa, while also supporting African institutions to hold China accountable for some of its more questionable practices on the continent.   


Polling from last year shows that 60% of respondents from 16 African countries believe that China’s influence is “somewhat” or “very” positive. The polls covered a mixture of African countries in terms of language, region, and socio-economic development. The change in favorability toward China was particular to the nature of each of those African countries’ bilateral relationships with China, but overall it was clear that African leaders challenged the anti-Beijing message coming from Washington during the last administration. “We don’t want our friends [i.e., the United States] to see China’s intervention and China as a threat to the partnership we have with them,” said Senegalese President Macky Sall at an investment forum. 

Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative represents a deep focus on Africa. Africans don’t want to choose between the US and China, but if forced to, China may win far more than it loses.    

Africans welcome Chinese economic engagement because they have a massive infrastructure deficit — one estimate puts it at $150 billion a year — and need Beijing’s investment to achieve their development aspirations. Africa’s ambitious, newly inaugurated free trade agreement, an initiative in impressive contrast to the world’s protectionist trends, won’t succeed without new roads, ports, power plants, and telecommunications networks. Africa suffers from being a woefully small part of the global economy, with a meager 3% of world trade. Underdeveloped and marginalized, Africans countries resent being told by the US that they shouldn’t engage with China, the world’s second-largest economy.  

The world’s largest economy, meanwhile, has missed opportunities in Africa. The US hasn’t built meaningful infrastructure in Africa for years, with its aid programs instead being focused on providing social services. Aside from resource extraction firms and the occasional fast-food outlets, American companies are largely disinterested in the continent. Left alone, China has come to dominate in many African countries as the continent’s leading infrastructure finance provider, and showing no signs of stepping away. Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative represents a deep and long-term focus on Africa. Africans don’t want to choose between the US and China, but if forced to, China may win far more than it loses.    


Of course, there are problems with China’s economic engagement. Some Chinese-financed infrastructure projects won’t pay for themselves, leaving Africans saddled with unproductive investments and heavy debt. Chinese operators can be environmentally destructive and abusive of African labor. Corruption is also common, where bribery isn’t unknown to Chinese (or other) companies.The former director of China’s Export Import bank went so far as to defend such practices as a pragmatic necessity on the continent, saying in 2007: 

“We spend most of the time discussing issues such as transparency and good governance. And that would not help because they are part of a development process. I do not think that Britain was as transparent as it is today some 200 years ago, let alone the United States a hundred years ago.”

Africans are increasingly aware of these problems. Fortunately, civil society in many African countries are asking tough questions about Chinese investment. For example, Kenyan civil society put pressure on its parliament to question the Nairobi–Mombasa railway, as it was feared to be a debt trap. Similarly, the government of Tanzania, beginning in 2016, has played hardball with a Chinese company over the $10 billion Bagamoyo Megaport Project, demanding better lending terms. 

African think tanks are also questioning the merits of various Chinese projects — and the US can do more to empower them, and other stakeholders, who want more transparency around Chinese investments. Will the potential bridge carry enough traffic to secure a return on investment? How many local managers and directors will be hired compared to expatriate equivalents? Will the proposed road be built to last? Is the project transparent? Will the project include technology or knowledge transfer? Helping Africans become better negotiators isn’t anti-China; it’s pro-Africa. Besides being good business, greater scrutiny and transparency of Chinese economic engagement would reinforce African democracy. Despite many democratic setbacks over the last decade, most Africans still aspire to democracy, not the Chinese governance model. Openness and civil society participation are the essence of democracy.  

Yet, the US is far behind China in Africa. Besides economic engagement, Beijing pays far more political attention to Africa than does Washington. Ambassador Tibor Nagy, the top State Department official for Africa in the Trump administration, recently wrote that China is “kicking our tails everywhere” on the continent. It, however, doesn’t have to be this way.   


China’s rise in Africa was largely overlooked by administrations of both parties. Today, Democrats and Republicans agree that it’s time to pick-up the pace. The US has some new tools for engaging with African countries — including the Development Finance Corporation — designed to promote investment on the continent, but step one should be reinvigorated diplomacy at the highest levels, matching the personal attention top Chinese leaders give Africa.           

Some are warning the US against entering into a new Cold War with China. There will be differences over China policy, but all should agree that black and white thinking, and indifference to local conditions led to mistakes during the Cold War, including numerous civil wars in Africa. US policy can and should aggressively meet the economic and political challenges posed by China, but it must have tactical nuance worldwide, including in Africa.      

While competing with Beijing, Washington should also seek to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, including counterterrorism, climate, and an area of past successful collaboration, anti-piracy. This exercise focused on piracy of the coast of Somalia in 2008 and pointed to the opportunities for cooperation over common security goals. And despite extreme tensions with China over COVID-19, pandemic cooperation is desperately needed. So too is crisis diplomacy, unfortunately. For example, both the US and China have a strong interest in working together to see that Ethiopia — where China has major investments — does not continue its path toward deadly ethnic fragmentation. Some attempts at collaboration with Beijing would no doubt fail. But what’s the cost in trying?  

African countries welcome both US and China engagement. US–China cooperation in Africa with Africans is what Africans hope for at a minimum. It won’t be easy. But African voices and interests should count for something in making US foreign policy relevant and effective. If so, Africa and the world would be a better place.       

Dr. Joseph Sany is the vice president of the United States Institute of Peace’s Africa Center.

Joseph Sany

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.