China’s Growing Influence in Africa: Implications for the United States
By Helina Daniel
As the Trump administration indicated in its 2017 National Security Strategy, Africa is a continent of promise full of the world’s fastest-growing economies and potential new economic markets and partners. The national security focus under Trump, unlike previous presidents, emphasizes the need for US economic security, with China and Africa playing key roles in maintaining both economic and national security. However, due to the recent adversarial approaches to China, through new tariffs imposed on Chinese imports, and to East African nations, through the suspension of benefits provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), US-African relations have declined as China’s partnership continues to develop from a primarily economic partnership to a budding defense partnership.
China’s Growing Influence in Africa
While US investment in Africa has declined, China’s investment in Africa has reached new heights. China’s investments have spurred infrastructure development in Africa and have provided China with much-needed resources, particularly oil, as China is second to the US as an oil consumer. US withdrawal, as well as declining diplomatic US-African relations, leave China in an advantageous position. Despite former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s interest in improving US strategy in Africa, current strategy indicates a focus on economic nationalism over improvement of economic ties globally, particularly in African nations as Chinese investment and influence continue to rise.
China’s economic interest is now supplemented by defense interests, as China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year and is now among a handful of nations, including the US, Japan, and France, who also have military bases in the East African nation. While the base has promoted regional stability in curbing piracy operations, the increase in China’s defense spending and presence in Africa pose a concern to the US. Analysts have commented that China’s base in Djibouti and its military presence in Africa “can be used to pin down the United States and any U.S.-led organizations, and if [the U.S.] wants to intervene against China’s interests, they will have to think carefully…”
The need to properly counter Chinese influence, however, is not being addressed by the Trump administration. Instead, this Chinese influence is furthered, as the US has continued to promote economic nationalism with imposed tariffs on China and has recently suspended Rwanda’s participation in the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), which passed in May 2000 and was intended to enhance market access to the US. The recent suspension of Rwanda’s participation in AGOA benefits was imposed after attempts in 2016 by Rwanda and other East African nations to develop domestic textile industries after an increase of tariffs on US secondhand clothing imports. While other East African nations narrowly escaped suspension, Rwanda’s suspension leaves space for a resolution, President Trump noted to Congress. However, the harsh response to Rwanda’s efforts to protect domestic textile will likely result in a negative economic impact on Rwanda’s economic development, rather than its otherwise expected increase over the next two years.
Additionally, China has become the primary investor in Africa. With the opening of China’s new military base in Djibouti, the US risks falling behind as China continues to play a major role in promoting regional security in East Africa. Increasing preference of China over the US in Africa is also of concern should China receive control of a key port in Djibouti or even influence the renewed lease of the US base subject to renewal by Djibouti.
As Chinese-African relations move beyond economic relations and US-African trade and relations decline, China’s increasing role as a global power remains a concern. Rex Tillerson has since been replaced as Secretary of State by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo, but the crucial need to improve economic and defense relations between the US and African nations still remains.