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A Strategy Rehash

The United States’ new Africa Policy is short-sighted and presumes that Africa does not know the dangers of Chinese aid and investment.

On 13 December 2018, the US National Security Advisor, Ambassador John R. Bolton, gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington D.C. It was not a speech so much as it was an unveiling of the United States’ new Africa strategy. In itself, it makes for interesting reading. The Trump administration has been criticised for letting its foreign policy, vis-à-vis Africa, drift aimlessly along in “deafening silence.” Yet another accusation has been that the delay in formulating a policy towards a continent that has emerged as vital to global geopolitical and economic interests will “squander years of US outreach.” Matters were not helped by the President’s derogatory comments on Haiti and Africa in January 2018. Certainly, the White House, under President Trump, has made little or no movement in the direction of Africa.

In March 2018, the then Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, travelled to Africa in what was seen as a welcome move and a much-needed pointer to the direction that the US was looking to take on the continent. His trip was the first time a senior member of the administration visited the region since Trump took office. The week-long itinerary included stops in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria, and was illustrative of an intensive focus on security. Djibouti, for instance, is the only US military base on the continent, besides being a key refuelling post for the US Navy. Kenya and Ethiopia are crucial American allies in the ongoing fight against the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, while Nigeria and Chad are partners against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, in October 2018, First Lady Melania Trump went on her first solo tour to Africa, making stops in Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt. The trip was largely dismissed in media reportage as a series of photo opportunities and failed fashion attempts, but for the duration of her trip, the First Lady spent time highlighting a more humanitarian side to American foreign policy. Her schedule laid emphasis on the need to promote literacy (she donated 1.5 million textbooks to the Chipala Primary School in Malawi, which is a prime recipient of aid under a USAID-funded literacy program) and maternal and child healthcare (she visited the Greater Accra Regional Hospital, funded by USAID). It was a subtle promotion of one aspect of US foreign policy that has gone unnoticed, thus far, and is definitely low on the US President’s agenda — Trump has already announced his intentions of slashing funding to USAID. Despite this, key official Africa-oriented posts in the State Department remained unfilled (such as US Ambassador for South Africa), while there was little to no discussion about boosting economic ties with the continent. This is in spite of Trump’s admission at the United Nations in 2017, that Africa was an important economic partner for the United States.

As a result, when Bolton rolled out the Africa policy for the Trump administration on 13 December, his speech grabbed international attention. The question on the minds of foreign policy is if this has come too late. Most US administrations have come into the White House without a clear Africa policy. When they took office, previous Presidents – from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama – had no definitive direction which they might have been looking to take with regard to Africa. Thoughts and directives merely developed along the way, though all three presidents were extremely interested in promoting bilateral ties with a dynamic continent. In the campaign which brought Trump to the White House in 2017, his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton (herself a former Secretary of State) was criticised for ignoring Africa in her projected, presidential, foreign policy agenda.

So, while the new Africa policy is not late – and indeed, Bolton played this up when he emphasised that it has been rolled out two years earlier than from previous administrations – it is interesting for many other reasons. The policy’s three prongs address the advancement of trade and commercial ties, countering the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and a rather vague commitment to “ensure that US taxpayer dollars for aid are used efficiently and effectively.” But a swift reading brings to light several ambivalent statements scattered across the speech. For instance, under “Prosper Africa”, the economic initiative by which the US is hoping to advance bilateral trade and economic ties, “we will encourage African leaders to choose high-quality, transparent, inclusive, and sustainable foreign investment projects, including those from the United States.” How this is to be done without bypassing the pillar of democratic principle at the heart of previous American outreaches to Africa is yet to be clarified.

In yet another example, Bolton warned that “less needy recipients should graduate from foreign assistance, and assistance should decline to countries and organizations making poor policy choices.” For all Africa’s economic dynamism, this might be a goal that is difficult to achieve for a number of its countries, and the indication that US aid will be heavily dependent on “poor” policy choices (especially given that the poorness of those choices will be defined by the Trump administration) should set alarm bells ringing across the continent. The bulk of the new US Africa policy (and indeed, Bolton’s speech) is, however, dominated by a clear American alarm at the rise of what the administration has termed a “predatory” China and Russia, both of whom have been going out of their way to make their presence felt in Africa. Of the two, it is Beijing that has long been in the lead.

With its seemingly-bottomless pockets, its infrastructural packages, its promises to stay away from interference in domestic politics, its encouragement to Africa taking the lead role in its map for geopolitical and economic connectivity – the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) – China is a benevolent benefactor to Africa. China relied on the fact that African countries desperately need aid, infrastructure and debt relief. Supplying the continent with an endless flow of funds and an ever-ready shopping list of investment and connectivity projects has allowed Beijing to paint itself as a responsible superpower, helping needier countries attain greater economic heights.

Today, however, cracks are appearing in this seemingly flawless image. As of 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has classified six African countries on the verge of bankruptcy: Chad, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. China’s seemingly-generous strategy has trapped poorer nations in an endless cycle of debt and broken promises. Agreements for the construction of roads, airports, railways, dams and other vital infrastructure projects not only lack transparency, but also often are left unfinished. The $4.5 billion Djibouti-Addis Ababa line, the first fully electrified cross-border railway line in Africa, has run into financial and operational difficulties. In addition, a newly-brokered peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea – giving the former access to the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa – has further dimmed one of the highlights of what this railway was supposed to do: link Ethiopia with Djibouti, previously its only access to the sea.

Other railway lines in Africa, funded by the Chinese, have been plagued by corruption and bribery scandals — never a good sign for positive public relations. In Angola, trouble is brewing as the country is exhausting its oil resources to pay back China, which holds 90% of its foreign debt. In Somalia, the government has granted 31 fishing licenses to China, allowing the China Overseas Fisheries Association (which represents 150 companies) to fish for tuna in Somalian waters. This comes at a time when local fishermen and fishing communities have appealed repeatedly to the government to prevent foreign countries from fishing in already-depleted waters. In Zambia, rumours have been swirling that debt is forcing the African nation to consider allowing China to take over crucial government and state-owned assets, like ZESCO, Zambia’s power company. In November this year, Sierra Leone backed out of a huge Chinese project to build a new airport in its capital city of Freetown. This was done on the grounds that Freetown already has an airport, and building a new one would make no sense. “I do have the right to take the best decision for the country,” said Kabineh Kallon, Sierra Leone’s Minister for Transport and Aviation. Chinese leaders leapt to the project’s defense, stating that it had been in an exploratory phase.

This is the first time that an African country has actually refused to take Chinese investment. It is also an indicator of growing skepticism about the viability of Chinese promises, and a realization of the dangers of being trapped in an endless spiral of debt. This begs the question: as China’s interest in Africa begins to mature, are African countries beginning to regret their acceptance of Beijing’s aid? Chinese funding is especially problematic because it comes with “relaxed conditions” – which is naturally attractive to African nations. However, because these agreements do not emphasise structural reforms to enhance governance and competitiveness, indebted countries seldom see long-term growth – examples of which are being seen across the continent, and a trend that African leaders are rapidly becoming uncomfortably aware of.

Yet Africa also knows that it cannot do without China or Chinese aid, despite the pitfalls that it presents. In Beijing, earlier this year, African leaders were in wide attendance at a security forum, held with the goal of deepening military cooperation. On 24 May, Burkina Faso, one of Taiwan’s last allies in Africa, announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Taipei, in favor of Beijing. Events such as these occur even while Moody’s, the global credit ratings agency, warns of the risk of losing strategic Sub-Saharan state assets to China. Zambia has been quick to deny the rumours of debt and Chinese takeover in any respect. In all, it is a complex picture – where undoubted long-term risks are paired awkwardly with immediate requirements, which only China can fulfill.

Where in this picture, then, does India fit? Even as a visibly-alarmed United States raises its hackles at China, India has also realized its shortfall on the African continent. In 2017, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor Plan (AAGC) was announced, a joint mechanism between Japan and India, designed as a parallel initiative to the Belt and Road Initiative. Over the last year, Tokyo and New Delhi have been mobilizing funds towards the plan, with Shinzo Abe pledging $30 billion in private and public funds to Africa, over a span of three years, to support development in infrastructure, education and healthcare. At their summit this October, the AAGC was discussed again between Abe and Modi, with plans for a cancer hospital in Kenya and business development seminars in the region. These are small steps, undoubtedly, but if fulfilled, the AAGC could well develop as a viable alternative to the BRI. It focuses on exactly the areas where African countries are feeling the pinch from China: development, infrastructure, connectivity, enhancing capacity and skills and healthcare.

India will also be expanding its military diplomacy outreach to Africa, beginning from next year. This year, between 17 and 20 December, the Indian Army Chief, Bipin Rawat, was in Tanzania and Kenya, holding talks on the subject. In March 2019, India will be conducting the “India-Africa Field Training Exercise (IAFTX)” in Pune, with a dozen African countries, from Tanzania to Kenya, and from Ghana to South Africa. So far, back-channel defense talks have also been held with countries across Africa, from Mozambique to Morocco and from Namibia to Zambia. In January 2019, the Gujarat government, in consultation with the Ministry of External Affairs, will also be organizing “Africa Day” at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, where heads of African states, from Rwanda and Ethiopia will be present. A huge African delegation is expected to attend Africa Day, and 12-15 MoUs are expected to be signed across key sectors such as healthcare, pharmaceutical, chemicals and petrochemicals, and textiles.

The subject of Chinese involvement in Africa has moved beyond economic clout, to a trickier quagmire, infested by debt traps and strategic hazards. The United States’ new Africa policy differs from previous policies only in its direct recognition of China as the primary threat in Africa, even as it avoids actually outlining what it will do to counter it. This is a short-sighted take, and presumes that Africa does not know the dangers of Chinese aid and investment. Today, African countries are desirous of being recognized as equal partners and allies, with both strategic and economic potential. They have no desire to be caught in the crosshairs of a great power game, trapped by their own economic necessities. From the small but decisive steps that India has been taking, it appears to have recognized that the way forward would be to recognize the worth of African countries as partners, and put in place an active strategy of military, diplomatic and economic outreach. In no way will this strategy bypass China’s presence in Africa, but it will be a head-start towards carving a space for itself as a viable partner for African nations.

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About the author

Narayani Basu

Narayani Basu is an independent author and foreign policy analyst, with a special focus on Chinese foreign policy and resource diplomacy in Africa and Antarctica. She is the author of The United States and China: Competing Discourses of Regionalism in East Asia (Cambridge, 2015). Her next book, a biography of VP Menon, will be published by Simon & Schuster India in 2019.