A relatively new, and increasingly important, area of competition between the US and China is their respective engagement with African states. While the US has a long history of involvement with the African continent, China’s engagement in the region has grown rapidly and used the COVID-19 pandemic to make greater strides. As the US and China compete for global influence and power, the dynamics at play with African states cannot be ignored.
Vaccine diplomacy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
Africa has proven to be a key battleground for US-China competition during the COVID-19 pandemic. Promises from both powers to distribute a vaccine have laid the groundwork for using it as a diplomatic tool in Africa that will likely intensify the bilateral rivalry. Although China initially came under harsh global criticism for its early handling of the virus outbreak in Wuhan, it has since turned around and seized the opportunity to use so-called “vaccine diplomacy” to further its ties with Africa and beyond.
In stark contrast, a US presence has been missing from the medical diplomacy scene as the country still struggles to curb the virus at home. The US has also failed to join the COVAX international vaccine alliance, which focuses on enabling equitable distribution of viable vaccines. Launched in April, COVAX is coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO, 184 countries have joined the alliance, including China. Many African states stand to benefit from the COVAX alliance, as it offers a viable avenue for lower-income countries and higher-income countries without bilateral deals with manufacturers to access a vaccine. As a result, Beijing has found ample opportunities for deepening ties with key African nations – unfettered by the US – while presenting itself as a hero in the face of an international crisis and burying the early global narrative that blamed it for the virus.
The battle for 5G
Meanwhile, the race over global leadership in 5G technology is also playing out intensely in African states such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tunisia. Beijing has seen success in Africa, with Huawei developing a strong foothold despite US attempts to turn countries away from the Chinese telecommunications giant.
After US claims that personal data collected by Huawei could be used by intelligence agencies of the Chinese government, many European and Asian countries have joined together to ban Huawei’s 5G network. Undeterred, the company has still managed to establish its influence and extend its hold on Africa’s telecommunications market. Following the example set by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last June, in which he backed Huawei as South Africa’s path to 5G, Kenya and Ethiopia have supported Huawei in the face of its contentious role in the US-China trade war. As a result, Huawei remains the top vendor in Africa for 5G technology with a reputation for inexpensive and robust coverage and will likely remain so due to its favorable financing deals and established presence in the region.
Possible win-win for Africa
It is possible that US-China competition in Africa can be to the continent’s benefit. The Washington Post’s Afrobarometer, a pan-African series of national public attitude surveys, gathered data across 18 African countries in 2019 and 2020. The results show that while there is a preference for the US model of development, Africans generally welcome influence from both Washington and Beijing. Interestingly, those that feel positively towards China’s influence also feel the same about US influence, indicating that Africans may not strongly favor one power over the other.
Perhaps the most accurate assessment is also the most obvious: Africa welcomes any influence that addresses its challenges and priorities, regardless of where it comes from. Nevertheless, the US and China will undoubtedly continue to view Africa as an arena to push forward their own agendas while vying for influence, power, and resources. Until Africa is forced to choose, it is in its best interest to receive double the amount of attention and continue to keep a low profile while the US and China battle it out.