Amid mixed messages and inconsistency China is the only constant of Trump’s US-Africa policy

Ethiopia prime minister Ahmed Abiy and US secretary of state Pompeo.
Ethiopia prime minister Ahmed Abiy and US secretary of state Pompeo.
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
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In his first ever trip to Africa, US secretary of state Michael Pompeo’s agenda sent more mixed signals about the Trump administration’s Africa policy.

While reiterating the United States’ interests in ensuring peace and stability in the region, Pompeo also confirmed the US is considering pulling back some of its troops from the continent. If followed through, the withdrawal will come at a time when insecurity concerns in the Sahel region are significantly heightened as al-Qaeda and Islamic State off-shoots take hold of entire swaths of countries including Burkina Faso and Mali.

Pompeo’s inaugural trip to the continent has happened less than a month after the Trump administration imposed more travel bans on African countries. Under the restrictions, the US will no longer issue immigrant visas to Nigerians and Eritreans while citizens of Tanzania and Sudan will now be omitted from the United States’ green card visa lottery scheme.

Yet, given that major trips like Pompeo are “scheduled long in advance,” the timing is more likely an “unfortunate coincidence” rather than a well-thought out diplomatic play by the United States says Matthew Page, a Chatham House fellow and former US State Department official.

But the trip may yet have some political merits especially with looming presidential elections in the US. “The trip is somewhat of a box-checking exercise,” Page adds.”[It’s] an attempt to inoculate the administration against those who would say it has barely engaged with even the most strategically important African countries.”

The backdrop for all this has been the launch of Trump’s signature Africa policy program: Prosper Africa as well as the  the launch of the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) with a $60 billion budget. The argument has been that the United States needs to move away from its aid and grants to partnering more strategically and financially in trade and businesss across the continent opening the door for more US companies to open up and pursue transactions across the continent.

But while the Trump administration’s US-Africa policy seemingly remains a work in progress, a consistent component has been its aversion to China’s now well-established stance as the dominant trade partner to many countries across the continent.

China trade with Africa overtook the United States back in 2009 and that gap has grown rapidly as the world’s second largest economy has partnered with many African governments to help close an infrastructure gap common across many countries particularly in Sub Saharan Africa. This is often pursued with a combination of Chinese-backed loans to African governments with the work carried out its state-owned enterprises.

Back in March 2018 former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, ahead of his first (and last) Africa trip warned the region’s countries the China model of economic development in Africa would push vulnerable countries into debt. Then in December that year, a few months after Tillerson’s ill-fated trip, former US national security advisor John Bolton said in a speech:  “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” Bolton said. Bolton borrowed his choice of words from former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who criticized China’s model of economic development in Africa ahead of a visit to the continent earlier this year.

More recently just last week, the World Bank president David Malpass, a former Trump advisor who the US president backed for the role a year ago, also took the slightly unusual step to warn about Chinese loans saying “they’ve escalated their lending” and worried about the lack of transparency in the transactions.

Pompeo didn’t let the side down. The US state department confirmed China featured in his conversation with African leaders during this visit. On the last day of his visit, Pompeo took a thinly veiled swipe at China, warning African countries to be wary of “empty promises” by authoritarian regimes.

But a stronger sign of US engagement with Africa would be for president Trump himself to vist the continent, suggests Brookings Institution fellow, Landry Signé. “The only real way to advance the Trump Administration’s US-Africa strategy, or more broadly, U.S. Africa-relations, would be to engage with issues of continental interests as well, and beyond words and commitments, making tangible actions.”

Senior Chinese leaders have commited to visiting Africa a significant number of times over the last two decades. Indeed, one of president Xi Jinping’s first foreign trips as leader was in 2013 to African countries incuding Congo Brazzaville and South Africa. Between 2007 and 2017, Chinese leaders visited African countries 79 times. The first trip of every Chinese foreign secretary in the last decade has often been on a trip to a group of African countries.

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