US-Africa Relations Under Trump and What It Means for China

Veda Vaidyanathan, PhD Candidate, University of Mumbai and ICS-HYI Doctoral Fellow

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of chatter in virtual corridors that Africanists inhabit, trying to assess what the new presidency in the US means for the continent. Donald Trump’s repeated references to the region during the campaign had not struck the right chords with African scholars and leadership alike.

US President Donald Trump’s tweets on South Africa before his election

Much hyperbole criticizing aid to Africa, using labels of corruption and crime and even mispronouncing ‘Tanzania’ during a foreign policy speech in April[1] failed to project Africa as a reasonable foreign policy priority. Some analysts attributed the Trump’s lack of seriousness in addressing Africa – a region that houses some of the world’s fastest-growing economies – to his lack of substantial investments in the continent.

A list of questions, sent by his transition team to the State Department was leaked by The New York Times and they provided a myopic view of the continent, a lack of interest in pursuing development projects and a fear of ‘losing out to the Chinese’.[2] Beyond causing confusion and fear to a certain extent, the recent travel ban directly affects three African countries. Some clauses in the new executive order, especially section 8 & 9, affect travelers from other African countries as well.[3] Schemes such as Trade Africa, Doing Business in Africa, Young African Leaders Initiative, and projects such as Power Africa risk being terminated. Trump’s opposition to multilateral trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership also suggests threats to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives African countries tariff-free access to the US.[4]

Tensions in US-China relations are playing out also in Africa. In 2009, China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, and in 2015, while Chinese exports to Africa amounted to US$103 billion, US exports to the continent were only worth US$27 billion. A decrease in US investments into the continent might be accompanied by relative disengagement and possible decrease in influence. In Djibouti, for instance, China has spent billions of dollars on several investments from building infrastructure, to setting up its first overseas military base. It also reportedly helped President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh campaign for and win an unprecedented fourth term, while the US, through USAID, allocated US$7,914 for Elections and Political Processes and another US$4,486 for Political Parties during the same elections in 2015. [5]

At a time when China is stepping up its infrastructure projects with schools, stadiums and railroads, including recently inaugurating Africa’s first electric transnational railway linking Djibouti and Ethiopia, which was designed, planned, and built using Chinese technology, manpower, and financing; parallels are immediately drawn with the US – one of Africa’s biggest traditional investors. As Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority said,

‘We approached the US, and they didn’t have vision…They are not thinking ahead 30 years. They only have a vision of African from the past, as a continent of war and famine. The Chinese have vision’.[6]

Similarly, the fact that the US President has only spoken with five African heads of state thus far – Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi in January, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and South African president Jacob Zuma in February, and most recently on 7 March, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya – while top echelons of the Communist Party of China often travel to African nations during their first overseas state visits, only improves Beijing’s image on the continent. Added to this, President Trump’s threats of limiting foreign trade, cancelling aid programs, registering Muslims – all of which have huge implications for countries in Africa – comes at a time when the Chinese are intensifying economic, political and cultural diplomacy with the continent. Chinese scholars are quick to point this out. A leading Chinese Africanist, He Wenping, argues ‘…if the Trump administration truly adopts a policy to marginalize Africa, the US may well lose its status as the favorite model of development among African people to China’.[7]

The phone call between Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and Trump in December led scholars to reexamine the importance of African nations in upholding the ‘one China’ policy. With Sao Tome and Principe switching its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing in late December 2016, there are only two countries remaining in Africa that still recognize Taiwan – Burkina Faso and Swaziland. And it is unsurprising that neither of them receive any Chinese loans.[8]

Although the US has remained one of the most influential traditional powers in Africa, over the past few decades, China’s role in the continent has been undergoing a deliberate transition, especially with the export of the ‘Chinese dream’ to African shores. To what extent the new American administration will build on former president Barack Obama’s dictum of transforming US-Africa relations from ‘patronage to partnership’ remains unclear.[9] However, there could be a renewed emphasis on military and security issues under Trump, and a push for corporations to expand their already huge footprint in the continent. The fact that the only person in the new cabinet with experience in African affairs is Rex Tillerson, whose ‘maverick oil diplomacy’ as stated by The New York Times, led to several of Exxon’s biggest acquisitions in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and Chad, among others, only adds credence to this argument.[10] Nevertheless, policies by the new administration that marginalizes Africans or the threat of termination of initiatives that are not reciprocal in nature or even a general foreign policy neglect by the US towards African countries could potentially increase China’s sway in the continent.

 

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