Yirga Abebe is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Dire Dawa University in 2010 G.C and a Master of Arts Degree in Peace and Security Studies from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University in 2014 G.C. Yirga has more than 10 years of professional experience in education and research in Ethiopian institutions of higher learning. He was a lecturer at Wollo University, Department of Peace and Development Studies, from September 2018-January 2021, and Jigjiga University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, from September 2010-August 2018. In addition to teaching, Yirga is actively engaged in conducting research on various themes at local, national, and regional level initiatives including customary conflict resolution, pastoral conflict management, conflict-induced displacement, women & election, parliament, and conflict management, peacebuilding, conflict trends, and geopolitical dynamics.

Africa has long been a center of intense rivalry between major powers. The continent has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, the world’s most diverse ecosystems, abundant natural resources, and one of the largest voting blocks in the United Nations Assembly. The United States and China have been vying for political, economic, and regional influence in Africa since the early 2010s; it has, in recent years, intensified and brought ideological and geostrategic divisions to full display. The history and current state of relations that the two countries have with Africa are vastly different, both in the nature and magnitude of their engagements.

The US and Africa have a long and tumultuous history; since the second half of the 20th century, the relations between the US and Africa have gone through at least three major phases each with different features: during the Cold War, during the transitional period between 1990 to 1998, and after 1998. On August 2022, the United States adopted a new strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa. Articulating a new vision for a 21st Century U.S.-African Partnership, the strategy aims to pursue four main objectives in sub-Saharan Africa:

foster openness and open societies; deliver democratic and security dividends; advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition.

China’s activities in Africa date back to the continent’s pre-independence period, when ideologically driven Beijing supported liberation movements fighting colonial powers. Nowadays, China is Africa’s largest trading partner, hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding by a factor of four US-Africa trade. China has become a preferred investment partner, a source of accessible loans for African countries across the board. Chinese funds back a wide range of projects from transportation to energy and minerals, medicine, agriculture, and telecommunications. However, these engagements are not without certain drawbacks.

For Africa, both the US and China have come up with their own comparative advantages/benefits. These factors would also benefit African countries and are the main reasons why African countries should favor closer ties with the United States than with China. What follows is a brief discussion of the US’s comparative advantages to the African continent at large.

Demographic factors

There is a large number of African descent living in the USA. This has a long history tracing back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is indicated that 12% of the USA population, around 43 million, are of African descent.

It is estimated that over 28.3 million sub-Saharan Africans reside outside their countries of origin. Of these, while about 17.8 million (63%) lived elsewhere within the region, the United States is the top destination for sub-Saharan Africans outside the region. There are approximately 2.1 million sub-Saharan African immigrants who resided in the United States in 2019. 53 % of these immigrants came from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, or Somalia. On the other hand, there are 381,000 immigrants in the United States from North African countries mainly Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan. In comparison, the number of Africans in the USA is by far greater than an estimated 500,000 African migrants that live in China, many of which are merchants. This led the USA to have an advantage over China in its engagement in Africa.

African’s positive perception of the US is slightly greater than China

According to a survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 2019 and 2020 in 18 African countries, China and the United States are placed in roughly equivalent positions as external influencers. Asked about their perceptions of the economic and political influence of the two powers, 59% of African respondents viewed China somewhat, or very, positively and 15 percent viewed China somewhat or very negatively. The comparable numbers for the United States were similar: 58% in positive and 13% in negative view. The same study reported that, when respondents were asked to name the best national model for development, 32% cited the United States, and 23% named China. Moreover, many scholars anticipate that Africans’ positive perceptions of the United States may continue to increase during the presidency of Joe Biden. This positive perception that Africans have towards the United States, somehow greater than China, will be an advantage to be utilized while engaging in Africa.

The spread of democracy, human rights, and civil societies

The US is best known for safeguarding liberal principles and institutions. The promotion of democracy, human rights, and civil societies has been an integral part of the US’s domestic and foreign policies. This in turn contributes to the spread of these values and institutions across Africa. This has enabled to empower the people so that they can exercise their power to elect and scrutinize their governments. It makes it somewhat more difficult for African governments to get away with blatant and excessive abuses of power in due course of governing. As many of the public services in Africa are not only provided by the government, the emergence of local/national/international civil societies in African countries, which is the by-product of the US’s engagement, will fill this vacuum.

On the other hand, Chinese engagement in Africa is often criticized for lack of transparency as many business practices are claimed to be fraudulent, abusive, and corrupt. Similarly, China is also accused of undermining the strengthening of democratic institutions and governance in Africa as it continues to invest in countries with governance challenges such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Conflict resolution and security diplomacy

The US usually assumes a larger diplomatic role in the overall efforts to resolve African conflicts. Despite its ever growing influence and increasing commercial engagement, China’s diplomacy has traditionally kept a non-partisan stance concerning inter and intra-state conflicts, and their resolution attempts, in Africa.

It is stated that although Beijing did appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa earlier in 2022, it has not been active in diplomacy surrounding the war in Northern Ethiopia as might be expected given its heavy investment in the country. While the African Union has taken the diplomatic lead, the United States was playing both a public and behind-the-scenes role in Ethiopia.

China has traditionally adopted a “non-interference” policy in African and global conflicts. However, this policy seems to have evolved with its new Belt Road Initiative (BRI) over the past 10 years. In February 2023, Beijing launched its Global Security Initiative, with the aim of “peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation”.

The US has a strong military and security presence in Africa. According to the US African Command, there are a total of 29 US military bases located in 15 different countries in Africa in 2019. These bases are categorized as an “enduring footprint” (a permanent base) and those with a “non-enduring footprint” or” (semi-permanent or contingency base). On the other hand, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. In general, the US has more leverage in terms of conflict resolution and security diplomacy than China which is known for its emphasis on economic diplomacy. This will enable to maintain military and security ties between Africa and the US.

Strong humanitarian engagement

The US has been more strongly engaged in humanitarian sectors, than Chinese, in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. gave out $97.67 billion between 2000 and 2018 in Official Development Assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, with infrastructure projects (48 percent of total aid) and humanitarian aid (26 percent) being the top priorities. The health sector was given $6 billion, the agriculture sector received $4.2 billion, and $3.5 billion was committed to education. In Fiscal Year 2021, USAID and the U.S. Department of State provided $8.5 billion of assistance to 47 countries and 8 regional programs in sub-Saharan Africa. China’s global foreign aid expenditure has reached $3.18 billion in 2021. Between 2013 and 2018, 45% of China’s around $26 billion foreign aid went to Africa, much of this aid went to transportation, energy, and communication sectors. Unlike the Chinese development priorities in Africa, United States development efforts place greater emphasis on health, education, and other humanitarian sectors.

Diaspora Remittances

There is a large number of African diaspora in the USA. According to Migration Policy Institute (2022), the number of sub-Saharan African diaspora in the United States is more than 4.5 million. The figure is expected to increase considering the number of Diasporas in the USA from North African states. The African diaspora living in the US, Europe, and elsewhere send back significant amounts in remittances to the continent. World Bank figures show that there is a total of $95.6 billion in remittance flows to Africa in 2021, of which $46.6 billion went to North Africa and $49 billion to sub-Saharan Africa. The extent of remittance is more favorable than the official development assistance to Africa of $35bn and foreign direct investment to sub-Saharan Africa of $88bn in 2021.

Chinese debt trap policy

Acknowledging this role, the African Diaspora has been among the priority issues in the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit which was undertaken in Washington DC on December 2022. It is also pronounced that the Biden administration will provide targeted support to small- and medium-sized businesses “with a specific focus on the African diaspora and their businesses and investors across the United States”. Therefore, the African diaspora, their business, and remittances will serve as an entry point for US’s comparative advantage over China related to Africa.

China is undoubtedly Africa’s largest bilateral creditor and a crucial partner in pioneering infrastructure development projects. Chinese loans have resulted in a significant debt held by African states. It is stated that overall external debt held by governments in the continent has doubled in two years, from a 5.8 percent average of government revenue in 2015 to 11.8 percent in 2017. Some African nations do have extensive Chinese loans and are suffering from out-of-control debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, high-interest rates, and other factors. While maintaining its image as a friend of developing nations, the extensive Chinese loans made to African countries will create the possibility of forced repayments, another headache to the continent’s development.

Some Pitfalls of Chinese Engagement in Africa

China is often criticized for an unfair and lack of a long-term strategy when engaging Africa. Compared with the US, the quality and standard of Chinese businesses in Africa is questionable. Its strategy is more about exploiting African natural resources than spurring the continent’s development, which also raises questions about sustainability for future generations in the continent and environmental concerns as well. In this regard, former President of the USA, Barack Obama, once said:

We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources. We recognize Africa for its greatest resource which is its people and its talents and its potential. We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth. We want to build partnerships that create jobs and opportunities for all our peoples that unleash the next era of African growth […]

While it is common to assume that China has been deeply engaged in Africa even surpassing the US, there is a repertoire of comparative advantages that the US offers to Africa. These stem from the US’ own strengths, as well as the pitfalls of Chinese engagement in the continent. These include factors related to demography, African perception, democracy, diaspora remittances, and strong engagement of the US in conflict resolution, security, and humanitarian-led diplomacy, on the other hand, China’s debt trap strategies and its trade practices in Africa present the United States as a better-suited ally.

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