Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

The US Lost: China reinforce their relationships with Africa

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi touched down in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Senegal in January, he was not there to cut the ribbon on the new roads and bridges that have been at the center of U.S. attention toward Chinese efforts in Africa. Wang’s trip, like many others made by Chinese leaders in the last three decades, was intended to reinforce the layers of networks and relationships that have been spun between Chinese and African diplomats, military officers, party officials, journalists, and civil servants.

Beijing says it respects all African countries as important partners regardless of size or power—as long as they disavow Taiwan—and its diplomatic practices do a lot to reinforce that. Since 1990, Chinese foreign ministers have made a point of picking Africa for their first trip of the new year.

If U.S. President Donald Trump, as his administration has stated, intends to have an Africa strategy centered on combating China’s reach in the region, the United States needs to recognize how China’s influence actually works. The kinds of ties exemplified by Wang’s visit—rather than more traditional points of attention, such as China’s growing financial involvement, its military base in Djibouti, or the Chinese-built roads and bridges in Kenya—give China its real advantage over the United States in Africa.

Although it is nowhere near flawless, a fair amount of consultation between Chinese and African counterparts goes into the making of China’s Africa policy. Chinese presidents and premiers make a point of making official trips to Africa as soon as possible after taking office. A closer look at high-level exchanges and official visits by China’s president, premier, and foreign minister shows that aside from Wang’s 2019 diplomatic visit, its top leadership has made 79 other trips to 43 African countries in the last decade.

China-Africa relations are certainly about infrastructure investments and natural resource extraction, but these go hand in hand with investments in people-to-people relations and sustained diplomatic outreach. Every year, the Chinese government sponsors thousands of exchange visits, short-term trainings, and scholarships for civil servants, young entrepreneurs, and high-ranking military officers. Just last summer, China held the first-ever China-Africa Defense and Security Forum, where top officials from 50 African countries spent two weeks touring military facilities and discussing security partnerships with their Chinese counterparts.

Then in September, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for 51 African leaders to participate in the seventh meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). This marked the biggest turnout by African leaders for a FOCAC summit to date. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who also serves as the current chairperson of the African Union, reiterated  the perception among African leaders that “the relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual respect, and a commitment to shared well-being.” In contrast, equivalent recurring opportunities for tête-à-têtes with African leaders are hard to find in U.S.-Africa relations at present.

At the FOCAC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced during his  opening address hat “China will provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for seminars and workshops and will invite 2,000 young Africans to visit China for exchanges.” These trainings and exchanges provide a window into China’s history, culture, and development model, cultivating a sense of familiarity and vital connections for Africans who attend.

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