Geopolitical competition between the United States and China is taking central stage in global affairs. Growing tensions and rivalry between the two are worsening in South East Asia, the Indo-Pacific, the Gulf and Latin America.
Former US secretaries of state Mike Pompeo and Hillary Clinton have often warned African leaders of the pitfalls of engaging with Russia and China. US officials are also dissuading African governments from relying on Chinese telecommunications leader Huawei for security reasons.
Great power rivalry in Africa has been well documented. But there’s another angle to consider – how can African countries use the rivalry to their advantage?
I explore this question in a recent article.
I argue that African governments should avoid the zero-sum game, especially when dealing with US-China rivalry. They should adopt measures that strategically play rivals against each other. They should also implement long-term strategies and domestic policies for dealing with strategic partners like China.
Avoid the zero-sum game
China’s engagement with Africa is often presented as a spectre by US officials during meetings with African leaders. In the past, both Republican and Democrat secretaries of state have warned of the dangers presented by China. The recent trip by Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, suggested a rhetorical shift. Nevertheless, indirect criticism of China was still present.
Some argue that the US is attempting to put on a zero-sum game, disrupt China-Africa cooperation, and exclusively advance American interests in Africa.
In response, African leaders have stipulated that they don’t want to be used as pawns in a proxy rivalry. Their main strategic priority is partnership diversification.
This makes sense. African governments should avoid restricting their strategies to those of a mutually exclusive zero-sum game. African economies are facing a crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. They need several partnerships and should exploit the silver linings presented by great power rivalry. As Branko Milanovic, an economist at City University of New York, says, those who once played the US and Soviet Union against each other during the Cold War could do the same now with the US and China.
Play one rival against the other
African countries should be seeking to exploit rivalries to their advantage.
Here are some examples.
Indian and Turkish contractors compete with China for contracts in Africa. In Guinea, rivalry largely takes place between China and Russia in the mining sector. Negotiators there found a silver lining in pitting both parties against each other.
Chinese negotiators were keener to reevaluate the clauses of their contracts, and to comply with requests when the Guinean government played the “Russia card”.
The strategy of playing one rival against the other also proved advantageous to Ethiopian negotiators in the allotment of the first telecom licenses in 2021.
By requiring new operators to build their own infrastructure or lease it from the state company (Ethio telecom) instead of third-party tower operators, the Ethiopian government selectively limited the number of contenders by prioritising its national interests. This enabled them to circumvent final bids between the MTN/China-backed consortium and the US backed Safaricom-Vodafone company.
Implement long-term strategies
African governments should determine how offers from rival partners can best align with their national development priorities. Kandeh Yumkellah, a Sierra Leonian development economist and former Director of United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, put it this way:
Africa needs all partners. We need to be smart and eclectic, picking what works for us depending on time and context.
To achieve this, I argue that five key measures are required:
Firstly, the “take-it-all” mentality of accepting short term, opportunistic offers should be avoided. Loans, grants and donations should fit African countries’ national development plans. They must also translate into projects that will directly affect people’s living standards.
Secondly, African governments should adopt more integrated and comprehensive policies. Senegal adopted a strategic plan that included sector-specific priorities via a special unit attached to the Presidency. Members of the unit selectively choose which foreign partners have the best potential to carry out these priorities.
Diversifying partners via a selective and strategic approach also allowed Senegal to be less dependent on old partnerships with France or their newer partnerships with China.
Thirdly, geopolitical rivalry is also taking place in other regions such as Latin America and Southeast Asia. Learning how some of them deal with this may present an opportunity to enhance the strategies of African governments.
Fourth, a coherent strategy requires enhancing the capacity of African bureaucracies to deal with China, Russia, Turkey and India. This, by building an internal pool of experts with knowledge of their modus operandi, cultures and languages. In the short term, African leaders can rely on the expertise of former African students who were trained in the universities of these countries to provide expertise and language skills.
Fifth, African governments should take the best of both worlds by promoting more trilateral or quadrilateral cooperation between new and traditional partners. Examples are the joint infrastructure projects carried out by Chinese and French enterprises.
Bridging rivalry through various forms of collaboration mobilises additional pools of finance and avoids project duplication. Furthermore, African governments should take their own citizens’ opinions on this topic into account.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer, the pan-African surveys institution, across 34 countries showed that 63% see China’s influence in Africa as positive. This is similar to the 60% who said so in the case of the US.
This suggests that US-China rivalry may not constitute an either-or dilemma for ordinary African citizens, but rather a win-win situation. It is up to African governments to use the benefits these rivalries present.
This is an edited version of an article that was initially published by the Africa Policy Research Institute.