Understanding evolving Africa-China-US relations from a media perspective
By Adhere Cavince
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States. His election was welcomed in many parts of the world, largely due to the antagonistic policies and diplomatic posture of former US president Donald Trump. Calling certain developing countries “shitholes” and characterising African governments as corrupt, the previous president also cut the aid budget to the African continent. He degraded Africa’s US foreign policy standing by cancelling Cabinet trips to the continent while keeping the crucial position of assistant secretary for African affairs vacant for over two years. Trump, who never visited the continent as president, also issued travel bans for nationals of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Sudan and Egypt.
While Trump may have driven relations with Africa to a new low, it would be unfair to entirely blame him for the lukewarm pulse of US-Africa relations. For decades, the continent has largely been viewed by Washington as a troubled space characterised by bad governance, conflict, disease and economic backwardness. Africa’s relevance in US foreign policy has often been confined to geopolitical considerations, for example during the Cold War, when the US sought alliances with African leaders to keep the Communist USSR from gaining diplomatic, cultural and political traction in the continent. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Africa has regained security interest from the US based on the fight against terrorism. In addition, it appears that now, at the turn of the century, the deepening relationship between Africa and China is fuelling much of Washington’s attitude towards the continent.
In Biden, many people across the continent see a new opportunity for better relations with the US. Already he has reversed travel bans to many Muslim countries targeted by Trump. The US has also rejoined international bodies such as the World Health Organization, COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. All these are seen to be important actions aimed at cementing US relations with Africa at a time when there is a global pandemic as well as an existential threat of climate change to Africa given that it is the continent that produces the least pollution yet suffers the biggest impact. The US president has also made contact with a number of African leaders, and sent a goodwill message to the African Union’s 34th Summit. In another positive sign, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just concluded a virtual tour of the continent that took him to Nigeria and Kenya.
The resulting optimism should however be measured as, in many ways, there is going to be continuity with past administrations. The issues that are already being articulated by the Biden administration will shape how the continent relates with both the US and China. Take good governance and human rights, for instance. The US will continue to emphasise security and stability in Africa: for example, Blinken spoke with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to express concerns over escalating violence and human rights violations in the country’s Tigray region. On the other hand, China views the Tigray issue as Ethiopia’s internal affair, only offering help to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis accompanying the conflict. After reported polls irregularities in Uganda during December 2020, the Biden administration imposed visa restrictions on government and security officials from that country. China’s President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, sent a congratulatory message to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on his re-election.
On democracy promotion, many Africans watched with disbelief the protracted elections that eventually delivered Biden to the White House. The administration’s assertion that “America is back” does not carry much weight when it comes to promoting democracy abroad. Instead, it gives actors like China, which has a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, a greater say on global governance frameworks – at least, in the eyes of developing countries, most of which are in Africa.
There appears to be a new sense of urgency with regards to economic partnerships as the Biden administration tries to strengthen the US’s trading position with the continent after it lost its top trading classification with Africa to China in 2009. The US is currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Kenya in a two-pronged move to cement US trade footprints in the continent while at the same time responding to the increasing role of China in Kenya and across Africa. Beijing now ranks as the top creditor, constructor and development projects financier for the continent. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China has partnered with some 45 African countries to undertake massive infrastructure modernisation, with key ports, railways and roads already actualised across Africa. The US is desperately seeking alternatives to China’s BRI, including the pooling of resources from the so-called democratic allies.
While Biden has indicated his willingness to abandon his predecessor’s disastrous policies towards the African continent, the new US international relations posture towards Africa appears to be as much about China as it is about the African continent. This is problematic in a number of ways. First, it transfers the place and importance of Africa to the US, and the continent is appearing more like collateral in America’s attempt to contain the increasing Chinese influence. Secondly, it fails to situate the mutual needs and priorities of the African people and the American people. Thirdly, the US appears ignorant of China’s ability to rapidly evolve and adapt its policy towards Africa, something that Beijing has clearly done very well over the years.
The key question now appears to be how amenable both Chinese and African agencies will be towards the Biden administration. The media is one important component of African agency that should shape a balanced, constructive and progressive discourse between China, the US and the African continent. Yet, without a proper understanding of the foreign policy motivations of China and the US, as well as those of African countries, covering the trilateral relationship can be akin to groping in the dark.
In a world of complex interdependence, African journalists must be willing to work beyond the prevailing narratives, most of which are a function of information hegemony and subtle prejudices regarding China or the US. With functional research and data-mining skills, journalists can gain access to key documents articulating the policy decisions of Beijing and Washington. These would help to better frame, explain and predict geopolitical happenings in the Africa-China-US space.
China has been considered difficult to report on as a result of the bureaucratic information overlays within its officialdom. This challenge could be overcome through relationship-building with embassy officials, Chinese scholars or even business persons. At the institutional level, African media outlets should consider having correspondents in China. Such individuals should be competent in Mandarin in order to effectively decode the nuances of Chinese society for the African audiences. So far, only a few media outlets from countries such as Egypt and Morocco have stationed correspondents in China’s capital, Beijing.
Within the China-Africa space, additional opportunities for journalists to better understand China while creating valuable networks include the annual training seminars that Beijing now offers African journalists. The forums are avenues of exposure on some of the most enduring narratives about China, such as poverty alleviation, infrastructure development and industrial expansion. China also offers up to 40 scholarships for African journalists annually, another avenue for those keen on reporting about China to experience the country from a scholarly and resident perspective.
While the US-China relations remain the most consequential bilateral ties in the world today, how these two countries relate to the African continent carries significant implications for the attainment of the latter’s socio-economic aspirations. As strong recipients of development assistance, African countries should be both pragmatic and tactical in managing their relationships with Beijing and Washington. African journalists and media outlets have both a responsibility and an opportunity to shape more productive and sustainable Africa-China-US relations.