Reporting Africa-China-US relations in the Biden Era: Six research publications

Africa-China-US in the Biden era: Journalism reporting issues, skills, and strategies

By Dr Bob Wekesa

In March 2021, the African Centre for the Study of the US, and the Africa China Reporting Project – both being research, teaching and public engagements entities at Wits University – convened a virtual session to discuss the journalism and media dimensions of the relations between Africa, China, and the United States. This was not necessarily a novel initiative: Africa has found itself wedged between China and the US since the turn of the millennium, with media as a battleground. Broadly, the tenor of the sometimes-intemperate debates has revolved around whether Africa should ally itself with the US or with China. The understanding has always been that the US and China are distinct in terms of their ideological dispositions, worldviews, and practices. The conclusion from certain quarters is that Africa cannot independently relate with both powers, that the continent must choose between the US and China! Africa is of course at liberty to choose between the two powers, but the intensity of the US-China geopolitical contest has often meant that African nations are under pressure to tread carefully between the two.

An Africa-US geopolitical contest was on the horizon from the moment the Communist Party of China won the long drawn-out civil war over mainland China against its bitter nemesis, the Nationalist Party of China (Taiwan), in 1949. However, the battle over Africa between China and the US did not quite reach heightened levels between the 1960s and the 1990s, for various reasons, key among them being China’s internal focus for much of this period.

Things changed from the late 1990s, when China started the so-called ‘going out’ policy, namely, pushing its political, economic, and cultural entities and actors out into the rest of the world. In 2000, China organised the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (Focac) summit in Beijing, which was followed by a surge in its economic and diplomatic presence on the continent. By the mid-2000s, the heft of Chinese engagements with Africa could not be ignored by the West, led by the US. A geopolitical battle that had hitherto been confined to the two powers in other parts of the world – particularly East Asia – now included Africa.

While the contest has been going on for two decades, animosities between the two powers in Africa have peaked at certain times. One such period was during the tenure of former president Donald Trump in the US (2016-2020). The trade war that emerged in this period quickly sucked in Africa, as African nations were compelled to choose between the two, especially with regards to US and Chinese information and communication technology suppliers. The rhetoric between Washington and Beijing has subsided somewhat in terms of the sheer tenor and escalation of hostilities since the beginning of 2021. Nonetheless, the super-structure that informs the tensions is very much still in place and there is little chance that the competition will go away in the near future. Students of geopolitics have indeed noted that the big power play was forged in the perception that a rising China is seeking to replace an ostensibly declining US for global superpower status. While the view from Beijing is that Africa should ally itself with China based on developmental goals, the view from Washington is that Africa should choose American norms and values that favour democratic ideals as basic ingredients for stability and progress. In this split, one sees the dilemma that an African journalist faces.

Given that the US-China competition in Africa will remain a dynamic of global engagements into the foreseeable future, we thought it worthwhile discussing how African journalists could cover this intricate, overarching, and emotive issue. The motivation for the virtual session arose out of the inevitability of African media coverage of China drawing in implications for the US and vice versa. This imperative became even more pronounced as the US went through the transition from the Trump era to the Joe Biden era. This period is still work-in-progress as the Biden administration notches up its first year in office in January 2022. It is a period during which the US is resetting policies and strategies towards both Africa and China. This suggests that China and, to a lesser extent, Africa, would also be reworking its policies and strategies in response to the shifts in Washington. These changes, often having short-, medium- and long-term implications, will, to say the least, constitute complex and layered tactics and developments for African journalists. Professional journalistic routines are such that stories must be packaged and disseminated with speed, even with issues as complex as Africa-US-China relations. Just how do African journalists fulfil their mandate of turning in stories that explain complicated issues in record time?

To appreciate the complex web of factors and issues implicated in the Africa-US-China story, consider the overarching questions that African journalists must grapple with: What are the implications of Africa-China relations for the US? What are the implications of Africa-US relations for China? What are the implications of China-US relations for Africa? What are the implications of Africa-US-China relations for the rest of the world? Along these macro levels of inquisition are the more finely granulated issues. What, for instance, will change as the Biden administration settles down, and what will stay the same? What will be the new opportunities and challenges for African countries? What will journalists need to be aware of to cover the Africa-US-China story as an evolving and developing one?

With these and more questions in mind, the virtual session sought to provide practical journalistic knowledge and pathways to African journalists to aid in efficient and effective coverage of the intricate geopolitical relations. The speakers were asked to focus not just on the issues that animate media coverage, but to also share some perspectives on how African journalists should go about covering the complex story. The result is this special issue, in which the speakers offer some ideas, with the understanding that future work will drill down to specific skills. In this issue, you will read about the key topics, policies, and strategies that African journalists should consider when covering anything from an investment to a policy speech by an American, Chinese, or African leader. Readers will begin to appreciate the roles of both state and non-state actors as well as the philosophical questions that speak to the positionality of an African journalist.

Across the board, contributors to this issue take the perspective that the Africa-China-US story should be covered using African lenses. This suggests that what may be considered an important angle for an American or Chinese journalist may not be newsworthy to an African journalist. In all of the articles there is a call for an African starting point to understanding a geopolitical contest in which Africa can no longer take an aloof position. We hope you enjoy reading this issue. Feel free to reach out to us with feedback as we try to make sense of the variegated Africa-US-China story.

Bob Wekesa is Acting Director of the Wits African Centre for the Study of the US