Africa-China-US in the Biden era: Towards an African agenda
By Dr Cliff Mboya
Africa finds itself at the centre of a new great power competition. The United States and China are engaged in a fierce geopolitical competition featuring sour disputes over trade, technology, democracy and human rights, among others. Their soft power artifices are playing out in Africa more than anywhere else in the world. The rhetoric coming from Washington and Beijing over their relationship with the continent suggests that the two countries are in a new Scramble for Africa.
While China’s policies regarding Africa are geared towards improving its attractiveness and gaining political and economic influence, one of the most important US foreign policy priorities with regards to Africa is containing China’s influence and commercial engagements on the continent. This raises the question, what is the role of Africa in this “new great game”? Are Africans pawns in this geopolitical game of chess?
Currently, the most pertinent issue in the Africa-China-US trilateral relationship is the fact that there is a new administration in the US that is expected to influence the relationship significantly. The Trump administration had identified strategic competition with China as a core objective in Africa. In President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech, he made it clear that his administration views China as its most significant national security challenge. While this suggests that the US’s policy towards China will largely remain the same under the Biden administration, there are indications that it will adopt a more rational and suave approach rather than the rash, unpredictable and often undiplomatic approach of the previous administration.
Biden plans to steer away from the Trump era’s unilateralism to a more cooperative approach that will boost multilateralism and repair alliances. He has indicated that despite an increase in geopolitical tensions and competition with China, the US will cooperate when it is in its national interest. However, plans to host a global summit for democracy during his first year in office, and proposals for an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, together with plans to design a new foreign policy framework for Africa, pose a direct challenge to China’s policies and signal an anti-China alliance. This means that, overall, the US and China will remain in a state of extreme competition in Africa.
African journalists will need to be cognisant of these geopolitical developments in order to mediate this trilateral relationship in the best interests of Africa. A big part of a reset of US foreign policy in Africa involves how the incoming administration is going to frame the issue of China’s presence on the continent. The US’s dominant media often stereotypes the China-Africa relationship and casts it in a negative light. China has responded by mobilising its diplomats, state media, state-owned companies and influential individuals to challenge US narratives and project a more positive outlook. The competing narratives and simplistic zero-sum mentality do not align with the reality and priorities on the continent. This calls for a strategic outlook on the trilateral relationship where African journalists prioritise African interests, and areas where the three parties have the potential to collaborate and achieve mutually beneficial goals.
African journalists must forge a common African position and a strong media response to shape the debate on Africa-China-US relations rather than rely on reporters from Beijing and Washington to steer the narrative. A shared African position could be facilitated by a pan-African media or a network of journalists who will prioritise African agency, realities and priorities while remaining objective and independent in relation to the US and China. To achieve this, consistency across multiple channels will be key to ensure synchronisation of efforts with other organisations and agencies.
A good starting point would be becoming more familiar with the Agenda 2063: ‘The Africa we want’ master plan, aimed at repositioning Africa to become a dominant player in the global arena. Aspiration 5 of the agenda calls for pan-Africanism where the creative sector, including the media, contributes more to Africa’s transformation and restoration. To do this, African journalists need to partner with government, research organisations, social and political groups to set and nurture societal goals and aspirations, articulating a shared vision of progress for Africa. These local actors and experts are also invaluable media sources who can help articulate and interpret the trilateral relationship from an African perspective. While at it, they should not forget the large segment of the African population who live in the rural communities and who remain disconnected from the information highway, which is dominated by elite discourses.
African journalists should not just be alive to their professional and commercial responsibilities but also be conscious of their obligation to protect the national interest. They can shape and spread national culture and value systems, defuse tensions and counter propaganda, ensuring that their voice does not pander to the special interests and needs of foreign powers. Journalists in China and the US, as well as in the West, prioritise national interest, despite the rhetoric of the free press.
African journalists should explore alternative models for African journalism. The dominant Western model emphasises a watchdog role that is often critical and puts the media and governments at loggerheads. Chinese media, on the other hand, adopt a more persuasive and positive tone and favour official perspectives. This offers an opportunity for African journalists to experiment with new models and find a balance between the two in the context of African interests.
Constructive journalism has been proposed as one way in which African journalists can play a watchdog role and also project Africa in a more positive light as opposed to the stereotypes that have historically characterised Western coverage. The concept of ‘peace journalism’, where journalists deliberately seek to de-escalate a conflict through focusing on ‘transformative ideas’, would be useful in the ongoing geopolitical contestations between the US and China. Strategies include challenging false narratives and their motives in attempts to disentangle foreign interests. This calls for more nuanced interpretive frameworks through evidence-based knowledge on what is happening on the ground.
In addition, African journalists must imagine a better future through meaningful stories that answer the question, what’s in it for Africa? This may be challenging under the dominant profit model for journalism in Africa, which is largely dependent on advertising and aid from foreign interests. The non-profit model has the potential to emphasise public and national interests. The most crucial survival strategy for Africa’s media is to generate content for local communities in local languages so it is accessible to a majority of Africans while building capacity for community and online platforms.
The intense geopolitical rivalry between the US and China dictates that African journalists be on the lookout for geopolitical manoeuvres while employing a keen African lens to understand what’s in it for Africa. They will have to pay attention to the following key events, which will determine the direction of the trilateral relations: the 8thForum on China-Africa Cooperation in September, 2021; the planned Global Summit for Democracy; the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is set to expire in 2025; and the proposed alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.