Trump’s ‘New African Policy’: Can US Weave Diplomatic Tapestries Using Chinese Threads?

On December 14, 2018, the US National Security Adviser, John Bolton revealed Trump’s ‘New African Strategy’, which aims to advance U.S. trade and investment, suppress terrorism and conflict, and ensure that US aid in the continent is well spent. This policy, entitled Prosper Africa, is perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest policy decision vis-à-vis the African continent. Yet, many critics detected the familiar rhetoric of the Cold War return in subtle hues with this policy. This is because, rather than focusing on developing Africa, this policy has taken the narrative of simply countering China.

In his speech at the Heritage Foundation, Bolton spoke of the “predatory” policies of China in Africa, which are led by opaque terms of loans and have given China unfair leverage over the national governments in Africa. Over the last two years, American foreign policy had turned into a listless farce, with no meaning or purpose, as far as Africa was concerned. Contrary to previous administrations, Trump’s inward-looking politics left no space for new initiatives to be launched and left existing partnerships lurching in confusion, disarray, and disregard.

The Chinese Threat

There is no question about the fact that a renewed and rigorous policy towards Africa was long overdue. According to the African Development Bank, African states need to invest $68 billion to $108 billion more each year in infrastructure to boost growth and create enough jobs for their booming populations. Thus, when China came knocking on Africa’s doors, with ambitions of infrastructural development, large-scale investments, cultural exchange, trade and prosperity, Africa didn’t go over the terms and conditions as well as one would hope.

Being orphaned by the US and adopted by China simultaneously, Africa witnessed an immense growth in Chinese capital. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, more than 10,000 Chinese companies now do business on the continent, earning approximately $180 billion each year. Although the United States still has more foreign direct investment stock in Africa, Chinese investment in the region is growing fast. In 2009, China overtook the United States to become Africa’s biggest trading partner. It has also taken over the Western superpower as the largest creditor of the continent.

With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) underway, the Chinese global trading zones are bound to increase many-fold. With even greater lending to developing countries and promises of trade, exports and economic growth, China is fulfilling its destiny of being a superpower of the East. And, to reclaim Africa, the US’s strategy has finally been kick-started. Even Bolton’s words at the conference were foreboding and warned of foreign threats, instead of being optimistic and growth-driven. Particularly, he said that “Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.”

Flight to dominance via Africa

Trump’s policy has the following three major objectives: Advancing U.S. trade and commercial ties with nations across the region to the benefit of both the United States and Africa; Countering the threat from Radical Islamic Terrorism and violent conflict. Ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars for aid are used efficiently and effectively.

This announcement has followed the signing of the BUILD Act by President Trump. The Act provides new authorities to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), including doubling its lending cap to 60 billion USD. ‘Prosper Africa’ will lead to over 1 billion USD in new investments and greater private-public partnerships in the region to flourish growth.

Although the policy is well suited to the situation, it is still being viewed as ‘poorly targeted’. This is because Bolton’s speech missed all the usual cries of human rights, democracy and freedom. Instead of posing as the harbinger of liberty and peace, as US policy has done since the end of Cold War, this one blatantly stands against the advances of Russia and China. Throughout his speech, Bolton mentioned the evils of China and Russia, which are making enormous investments by fooling African nations with opaque credit terms, bribes and strategic use of debt. He also criticised several UN peacekeeping missions, which have received enormous American funds, but to no fruition. His speech, thus, disregarded the commercial, economic, political and military advances of China and Russia and admitted that the US’s efforts in the region have yielded no substantial political or economic results.

Although the Trump administration views this policy as the best way to secure American interests in the region while ensuring sustained development, previous governments have used multilateral approaches instead. This means that in order to achieve peace and economic growth, previous governments saw China as a partner, instead of a global adversary. Obama, in particular, saw China’s interest in the region, even via American initiatives, as a medium to further bolster growth. Many experts feel that a triangular approach to the African question, wherein both U.S and China could invest in partnership, rather than in competition, would have been more desirable.

However, one cannot ignore that there has been a significant shift in the positions of both, the US and China, on the global stage. China indeed has been aggressively advancing its economic and military interests in Africa and Asia and perhaps, a strong political move like this was what the US needed to reiterate its own position.

America has finally built a concrete structure for its African policy. Although there are still many blanks that need to be filled, there are several desirable changes that are coming about, especially, reduction in expenditure on UN projects that have not led to any tangible results and increase in investment-driven projects, led by economic and commercial interests. With the trade war first and the African policy now, it seems that U.S. and China are diverging on their paths to achieve global growth and prosperity. Globalisation and planetary collaboration are increasingly taking a back seat and national superiority is coming to the forefront again. Whether or not this works out for Africa, China and the US is yet to be seen.


Ashima Makhija

I am pursuing Economics (Honours) from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. I spend my time solving fictional murder mysteries and avoiding real-life mysteries (seriously, when did I last open my course book?).

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