Come January, president elect Joe Biden will have to make good on his promise to compete with China in a more considered and multilateral manner than his erratic predecessor. Towards this end, his administration would do well to reconsider Washington’s approach to Sub-Saharan Africa, a region of over one billion people and counting. Doing so will require the former vice president and his team to recognize the multifaceted ways in which China pursues its interests across Africa, and to recognize the ideological aspects of U.S.-China competition without overemphasizing them.
China’s primary influence in Africa comes from its economic weight, though ideological factors do play an overlooked and evolving role in China-Africa relations. Over the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly promoted its authoritarian governance model in the developing world.
The PRC no longer exports a coherent, universal ideology like Maoism, as it has no such ideology to offer. While Xi often evokes Mao, he is no revolutionary. Traditional Marxism-Leninism still seems to influence the CCP’s worldview to a degree, but the party’s central message is ultra-nationalist—arguably fascist—and thus has no intrinsic appeal to non-Chinese.
Nevertheless, the CCP seeks international support for its authoritarian model, as it sees itself as locked in an ideological struggle with states that promote liberal values, broadly defined. In Xi’s vision of a more Sinocentric global order, the non-Western world will look to the CCP for inspiration and discard many of the notions of good governance and human rights that presently dominate the international discourse.
To this end, the CCP promotes its political and economic model in an ad hoc fashion, providing developing world elites with a malleable intellectual and practical program for advancing illiberal governance. In a recent report, I examine these efforts in Africa, where China has invested billions of dollars since the start of the millennium.
To supplement its formal diplomacy on the continent, the CCP hosts trainings for African ruling parties that cover everything from economic theory to maintaining party discipline. The People’s Liberation Army offers military education to African officers that advances Beijing’s party-army model of civil-military relations (to quote the late chairman, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”). Chinese state-affiliated media, meanwhile, run gushing op-eds by African commentators in praise of the CCP’s “development-centered” model that paint Western efforts at democracy promotion as “neocolonial” meddling (it does not help that Western powers have, in fact, engaged in neocolonial interventions in the decades since independence).
The reactions of African governments to these efforts vary greatly. Several regimes in southern and eastern Africa that came to power as left-wing guerrillas in the Cold War or its immediate aftermath tend to be sympathetic to the CCP’s worldview and have adopted elements of Beijing’s single-party model. Known as the liberation movements, these include Zimbabwe’s authoritarian regime and South Africa’s ruling African National Congress. Beijing’s governance lessons are relatively applicable to these regimes, as even those that operate within genuine democracies share a Leninist party structure with the CCP.
For many other African states, however, ideological sympathy plays a minimal role in relations with Beijing. Kenyan and Nigerian politicians, for example, seem to see party-to-party trainings primarily as a means of ingratiating themselves with a major economic partner rather than as avenues for genuine learning.
The CCP’s promotion of its authoritarian political model is noteworthy, but Chinese influence is hardly the only factor in African politics, which are as complex as those anywhere. We cannot attribute authoritarianism in Africa solely or primarily to the CCP. While its outreach can bolster authoritarians, Africa’s illiberal regimes are mostly driven by local political realities and their own notions of state- and nation-building. With a few exceptions, Africa’s authoritarian states lack the capacity to achieve the totalitarian control to which Xi aspires. Consequently, not every governing technique or technology that the CCP employs can be seamlessly replicated in Africa, as the underwhelming performance of Huawei surveillance technology in Kenya demonstrates.
The United States, therefore, should not approach African states as potential proxies that can be turned into miniature versions of itself or China. As the continent emerges as an arena of U.S.-China competition, the contours of this contest remain vague. Some in Washington speak of the contest as a new Cold War, correctly noting that there are ideological stakes. Such rhetoric is understandable after years of well-intentioned but ill-fated attempts at “constructive engagement” with Beijing. But it can be misleading with regards to China’s behavior in Africa and also quite alienating to those who remember how much the continent suffered during the last great superpower showdown.
Unlike the Soviets, China is not challenging the U.S. through a zero-sum contest via third-world proxies—at least not at present. The CCP, while ideological, moderates the promotion of its model overseas with pragmatism and a strategic mindset geared toward the long term. It pushes its model when it senses there is receptiveness, but has shown no desire to directly overthrow African democracies and is willing to do business with any state so long as they agree not to cross certain red lines —albeit unreasonable ones such as recognizing Taiwan or criticizing the CCP’s horrific human rights record.
Washington would likewise do well to treat China as a long-term challenge and temper its idealistic ambitions with a healthy dose of realism. Washington should identify and secure core strategic interests, such as retaining access to its military facilities in Djibouti that may be under threat from China’s growing military footprint. But it should not expect that China will be leaving Africa anytime soon. Nor can the U.S. advance its interests through moralistic rhetoric alone.
The ideological dimensions of the contest notwithstanding, U.S.-China competition is very much an economic affair. The same applies to Africa. Despite being a top source of foreign direct investment on the continent, the U.S. has often struggled to provide viable alternatives to specific types of Chinese financing and infrastructure. The U.S. government’s plan to offer loans to draw developing countries away from Huawei and ZTE networks is a step in the right direction and seems likely to proceed under a Biden administration given Democrats’ well-founded suspicion of the Chinese firms. “Democrats are fully on board,” a senior official in the outgoing administration tells me. “No one wants to see China dominate the 5G market across Africa.”
The U.S. also cannot neglect international institutions, flawed as they may be, if it hopes to promote its values in Africa. Recent polling suggests that Africans view the UN about as favorably as they view the U.S. and China, which is unsurprising given how dependent many African countries are on international assistance. Of course, the UN is not itself an impartial agent of order. The WHO’s horrible handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak demonstrated an important, if unfortunate, truth in international relations, which is that multilateral institutions are not inherently benign actors detached from geopolitical competition, but rather arenas for said competition. Beijing has long appreciated this and has courted African support to launch its officials to the top of UN agencies that are highly visible on the continent.
In the long term, Washington would be better served by addressing African priorities than by trying to counter China at every turn. Africans are ultimately less interested in the outcome of a great power contest than they are in having multiple partners that are invested in their development. Consequently, the U.S. will not have much success by merely chastising Africans for maintaining relations with China. But Washington may well expand its influence if it treats competition with China as an impetus for more constructive, proactive engagement across the continent.
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