Media and Africa-China-US relations in the Biden era
By Puso Kedidimetse
The United States and China have historically maintained an adversarial relationship, and this situation became more pronounced during the tenure of former US president, Donald Trump. There is a likelihood that this adversity will be replicated in Africa where both China and the US are carving out spheres of influence for themselves. Their presence in Africa is certainly having an impact as they compete on geopolitical matters and for the continent’s natural resources. Their rivalry stems largely from their differing worldviews. Both China and the US foreign policies are motivated by the perception of the rightness of their history and destiny as great powers. After the Second World War the US sought to spread its values to other countries as an indication of the triumph of liberalism and market democracy. The Chinese on the other hand insisted on the Chinese philosophy of internal stability and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries due to its history of occupation by foreign powers. However, the US, long considered the world’s hegemon, is playing catch-up to rising Chinese influence in Africa. Long neglected by Western powers, Africa stands to benefit from this rivalry and the attention it has been receiving from these two world powers. Its marginalisation from geo-political, economic and security conversations internationally has become a thing of the past.
The two nations’ activities are presenting a challenge to the African media as it attempts to present an objective assessment of their economic and political impact on the continent. The media must overcome the dominant narratives about the two countries, especially China, an opaque state. Until recently, Chinese media, especially television, was not accessible to African journalists. This has changed as China Global Television Network (CGTN) and China Central Television (CCTV) now relay Chinese stories directly to African audiences. The prevalence of a global commercial media system dominated by a small number of powerful, mostly US-based transnational media corporations, such as the Time Warner-owned CNN International, has resulted in a dominant narrative that influences the depiction of China by African media. African journalists should write stories based on their own perspectives regarding China’s economic and political impact in the continent.
The Biden administration came into office following Trump’s acrimonious stance on foreign policy, especially, with regards to the conduct of the Chinese state on intellectual property and the security of Chinese technology in use in the US, such as Huawei. The posture of the Biden administration’s chief diplomat, Anthony Blinken, in his maiden meeting with a Chinese delegation in Alaska, from March 18 and 19 2021, indicates that the US will seek to maintain the pressure on the Chinese while pursuing constructive diplomacy behind the scenes. In his first foreign policy speech, President Joe Biden was clear that the US sees democracy as the future, while noting that Chinese Premier Xi Jinpin, believes in autocracy. African journalists must follow these developments and write stories on the possible spillover effects of these tensions in Africa. It is up to African newsrooms to stick to their mandates and be objective in reporting on the benefits and challenges brought by the presence of both the US and China in Africa. This will not be easy, since many of them depend on funding from the Chinese and US to conduct investigative reporting projects. American non-governmental organisations are active in training journalists. These include the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship, the Nieman Fellowship, and the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship. However, despite the generous funding, journalists should bear allegiance to their mandate, objectivity, and the facts. African perspectives should dominate their reporting style; reinforcing dominant narratives or pursuing donor mandates that do not benefit Africa should be discouraged. Media in Africa should seek funding from non-governmental organisations, international development agencies (such as Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In addition, they should apply for funding from impartial and non-partisan, independent funders to improve the quality of reporting, which would enable the development of African narrative journalism. These include the Open Society Foundation and the International Centre for Journalists.
African journalists should reduce their over-reliance on foreign media sources to report on China and US activities in the continent. Furthermore, they should try to understand the Chinese political and business culture to avoid falling prey to misleading pernicious stereotypes and tropes. Consequently, they need to build alliances with multilingual Chinese journalists and activists who can assist them to pursue sources in China. This would ease communication barriers that impede factual reporting.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented African journalists with an opportunity to investigate the consequences of vaccine nationalism (a practice where countries, especially rich ones, hoard vaccines and prioritise their own citizens) on African peoples’ health. The media in Africa should also focus on stories interrogating the advent of the US rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) and the meaning for the vaccine rollout in the continent.
A comparative analysis of Chinese loans to African governments against those from the US, the sustainability of the terms of lending and whether there is value for money is a must-do story. The effects of Chinese-built infrastructure projects on local communities should be examined in detail, focusing on their environmental impact and transparency in land-acquisition deals. The African media should be able to analyse Chinese development loans to African countries, failing which African economies will suffer the same fate they suffered during the Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAPs) championed by the Bretton Woods institutions in the early 1990s. This story angle is worth pursuing given that China holds a significant amount of Africa’s debt, which recently saw some countries, such as Zambia, seeking debt restructuring to cope.
It would be a strategic mistake if African countries were made to choose between the two superpowers; they need to leverage the status quo to their advantage. The rivalry between the US and China is proving to be a bitter-sweet Eldorado for African countries as history shows that when superpowers are carving out spheres of influence, they entice their allies with aid to deal only with them, failing which they punish them for any proximity to their adversaries. African countries should also take advantage of the attention they are getting to pursue sustainable developmental projects given the fact that aid is likely to flow from both sides. The US has been concerned with rising Chinese activities in Africa. However, the rivalry became intense during the Obama and Trump eras, which saw the Chinese doubling their economic investments, especially the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, lending money, developing infrastructure projects and political and cultural interactions.
With regards to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Chinese have a head-start and have donated vaccines to some of their allies in the continent, exploiting the US’s vaccine nationalism which started under the Trump administration. Globally, the Chinese are collaborating with Africa on international affairs at the United Nations, in the process receiving support on common interests. These include the global climate agreement in Paris, where China sided with Europe and developing countries against US attempts to kill the treaty. Under the Biden administration, the US is rejoining the Paris Agreement. This is a win for China.
The success of China’s political and economic system has the potential to influence leaders around the globe to pursue a system other than the US liberal democratic system. This is true for those countries with authoritarian rulers who might be attracted by what China has achieved without following liberal democracy, which the US has been propagating around the world, and especially in Africa. China and the US could potentially cooperate in Africa on maritime security, anti-terrorism, peacekeeping, and the fight against pandemics. This has the potential of being replicated in the East and in the South China Sea, where tensions have been escalating. African countries, therefore, should take advantage of the US-Africa Command bases and the presence of Chinese military bases, especially in Djibouti, to build their troops’ capacity.