China’s deepening engagements in African nations has been a topic of fervent discussion in western media for years, oftentimes discussed with a veneer of fear and anxiety given the powerful potential and geopolitical implications of such relations.
In Nairobi, well-known as the portal to east Africa for both trade and technology, China’s presence is everywhere. Despite ongoing critiques of neocolonialist engagement across the African continent, the growing Chinese community in Kenya has been assimilating with local populations.
Sino-African intermarriages are on the rise; both Chinese and Kenyan chefs are experimenting with fusion cuisine. This counters the widespread, racially-tinged assumption that Chinese people abroad prefer to resist assimilation and remain in insular communities.
But perhaps the US is not simply concerned about China’s meteoric rise, but its own waning soft power.
“For decades, US Africa policy has reflected two main considerations – an obsession with China and a preoccupation with countering violent extremism across the Sahel.” This is according to John Calabrese, the director of American University’s Middle East-Asia Project. He says that from certain African perspectives, China’s engagement may be perceived as far more consistent and preferred than that of traditional western powers.
The numbers support this argument. A February 2022 study by the American think-tank, the Center for Global Development (CGDev), found that China’s development banks (China Exim Bank and China Development Bank) outstripped the amount lent by the US, Germany, Japan, and France combined over those 13 years by more than double: $23 billion versus $9.1 billion. The study focused on 535 public-private infrastructure deals funded in sub-Saharan Africa.
Josh Maiyo, a lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi specializing in China-Africa politics says that the silence since Biden’s announcement of the Build Back Better global development agenda reaffirms a general African perception of American decline across the continent. “In the past, should an important American head of state visit, it would be a big deal. When Secretary Blinken made his first African tour last year, it barely caused a stir.”
Calabrese says that the US has consistently failed to follow through with big, ambitious plans across Africa. “Ever since the launching of Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ initiative, there hasn’t been much action. If the US were to exercise leadership and make use of its convening power to devise new and revitalize existing multilateral approaches, perhaps its reputation could also be revived on the ground in Africa.”
Former President Trump’s years in power were notoriously silent on Africa for better or worse, but rich on commentary on China in Africa.
Efem Ubi, an associate professor and director of research at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, perceives the US’ fixation with China’s rise as its own grapple with a loss of power. “It goes back to the study of international relations. When a new hegemony power is rising, the existing power resists the change,” Ubi tells Quartz.
And while it is very easy to dichotomize Africa relations with western powers versus China as colonial/non-colonial, the truth is that China does come with less colonial baggage to the continent even if sometimes the country’s actions are seen as neocolonialist.
“Africa now can choose which powers to relate to and do business with. The old stereotypical, colonial relationship is starting to fade. We want new relationships that reflect mutual relations and the win-win relations that China provides, which is worrisome for the west,” Ubi says.
There is also the temporal factor. The US’ own relations with Kenya are relatively ‘normalized,’ but in contrast, the scope of China’s involvement in Kenya is far more recent. Large-scale investments falling under the well-publicized Belt and Road Initiative—dubbed the ‘new Silk Road’—have created a shock effect.
The physicality of infrastructural projects has catalyzed a sense of awareness amongst Kenyans, from Chinese workers hard at work at construction sites throughout Nairobi to the myriad of Chinese restaurants proliferating in the town. Conversely, the US tends to specialize more in humanitarian and social aid, which bear less visual appeal.
The US’ current approach to Africa seems more like a response to China’s rise, than a clear framework. “It’s clear that [Build Back Better] was something created to antagonize Chinese global development. Why come up with ‘Build Back Better’ if you don’t even have an exact framework put in place?” Ubi says.
“It’s just to show that there’s rivalry between you and China. The US needs to come to terms that there must be more concerted efforts to advance the developing world in terms of human indexes, not just challenge a framework.”
He adds, “It also trivializes Africa–when these people come together and fight, it takes us back to the 1884-1885 Berlin conference to colonize Africa.”
While Chinese activities in Africa certainly deserve attention, as does the persistently unstable security situation in the Sahel, there are a plethora of other challenges too including climate change. Recipient African nations are sensitive to the nature of western concern.
Calabrese says “American engagement today is not necessarily about Africa, but countering Chinese advancement. The US does not have serious engagement with the African continent, there are no concrete programs to offer. African nations are waiting to see substantial, sustained backing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted ‘trivializes’ as ‘tribalizes.’