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‘Business First’? Concern over Donald Trump’s Africa strategy

‘Business First’? Concern over Donald Trump’s Africa strategy

After two years, the US administration finally clarified its Africa strategy last December. As the world discusses and dissects his 2019 State of the Union address, David Thomas examines why and how Donald Trump’s depiction of the continent as a battleground between the US and China is a cause for concern.

Based in an imposing high-rise on Washington DC’s Massachusetts Avenue, the headquarters of the conservative Heritage Foundation are an unlikely location for a US administration to renew its relations with Africa.  

Yet it was here on 13 December  that President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton chose to launch a new strategy for the continent via a speech that represents a radical break from previous administrations.  

Gone is the high-flown rhetoric and patient soft power of former President Barack Obama, a four-time visitor to the continent and son of a Kenyan government official, in favour of a hard-nosed promise to “put the interests of the American people first, at home and abroad” by boosting US trade and commercial ties, reprioritising aid, and most significantly, thwarting the African ambitions of what Bolton termed a “predatory” China.   

“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands. Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption, and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as US development programmes… In Africa, we are already seeing the disturbing effects of China’s quest to obtain more political, economic and military power,” he argued.  

While Bolton’s long-awaited distillation of the administration’s Africa thinking, albeit overdue two years into Trump’s tenure, has been welcomed as a necessary step by the foreign policy community, his direct bid to paint the continent as a battleground in the US’s geopolitical struggle with China has been greeted with concern and scepticism by Africa policymakers from former administrations.  

“I think the US needs to offer an alternative to Chinese investment by increasing its activity, better supporting US companies, and providing greater capital, and that framing this as an us vs them, US vs China landscape is too much of a cold war mentality that defines the continent more as something to be won and doesn’t recognise the innate political and economic power and potential of a very diverse and dynamic continent,” says Grant Harris, CEO of Harris Africa Partners and a former principal adviser to Barack Obama on African affairs.  

Yet for the nationalist-minded policymakers of the Trump administration, the scale and nature of Chinese investment in Africa provides a stark illustration of the challenge posed on the continent and the rationale for an aggressive US response. According to Bolton, China invested some $6.4bn in Africa in 2016-17 by “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States” while boosting its military and strategic capabilities in countries where the US has historically enjoyed predominance, including Djibouti.  

Witney Schneidman, senior international adviser for Africa at law firm Covington & Burling and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, counsels against such zero-sum thinking by arguing for a more constructive strategy of engagement with China and its African partners and clients. He fears that Africa’s interests risk becoming marginalised amid the global rivalry between the antagonists.  

“There are areas where the US should be cooperating with China, and the US should be provoking a debate with African governments about China when it comes to transparency, economic viability, and the notion of international tenders as opposed to sole sourcing. To take this zero-sum approach I don’t see as very helpful or realistic… I don’t think until African governments challenge the terms of investment by China that we’ll see changes in Chinese investment in Africa.” 

That view finds sympathy with Grant Harris, who says that a more constructive approach to China on the continent need not tiptoe around contentious issues raised by China’s engagement.  

“There are some tangible benefits to having increased Chinese capital flowing to the continent while at the same time it’s fair to point out how some Chinese behaviours really degrade and corrode democratic institutions and opaquely burden governments with immense amounts of debt,” he says.  

Investment and trade ties  

But with China and the United States embroiled in a costly and expanding trade war and an acrimonious dispute over the US-sanctioned arrest of a senior Huawei executive in Canada, Bolton may feel emboldened by an emerging bipartisan consensus among Republican and Democratic lawmakers that brands China a protectionist foe, technology thief and looming national security threat.  

That view drives Bolton’s ambition to outflank China in Africa by deepening US trade and investment ties on the continent. The current picture is decidedly mixed – while US entities increased the number of FDI projects in Africa by 43% to 130 in 2017, according to EY Global’s 2018 Africa attractiveness report, two-way trade fell from a high of $100bn in 2008 to $39bn in 2017, largely due to US energy self-sufficiency, according to Brookings.  

In response, Bolton’s speech announced the development of “Prosper Africa”, a sketchily defined initiative that he insists will boost US investment, grow Africa’s middle class and improve the region’s business climate. While that plan awaits further detail to differentiate it from Obama’s Doing Business in Africa campaign, it will likely dovetail with the administration’s plans to move towards what Bolton terms “modern, comprehensive trade agreements” on the continent, which include a greater degree of market access for US exporters and opportunities for US job creation. While that may appear to endanger the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – a tariff-free scheme for African exporters that has been supported by every administration since Clinton – it’s likely that AGOA will remain in place until countries can handle the rigours of reciprocal trade with the US. This gradual approach to overhauling trade is unlikely to differ significantly from Obama’s Africa trade doctrine, according to Harris.  

“[The administration] has said it will move towards two-way trade which I think makes sense. That was the position of the Obama administration as well, that we need to be thinking beyond AGOA rather than think about continuing it indefinitely for decades to come,” says Harris.  

Surprisingly, one of the Trump administration’s most significant initiatives for boosting commercial ties with Africa failed to gain a mention in Bolton’s Heritage Foundation speech. In October, the Senate joined the House of Representatives in passing the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development Act (BUILD), which will create a new development finance agency to invest in developing nations. The United States International Development Finance Corporation, which will be able to make loans and buy equity stakes, will have double the funding cap of the existing Overseas Private Investment Corporation at $60bn and has the potential to completely transform the effectiveness of US development finance in Africa and beyond.  

“I think the Trump administration deserves great credit in working with Congress to create a new DFI for the US with a greater budget and with a more nimble mandate. That’s a very serious accomplishment… I think investors will take note that the Trump administration has committed to do more on trade and investment and the business community is waiting to see if there’s any follow through and if so what it means,” says Harris.  

Waning soft power 

Yet despite all the talk of enhanced trade ties and future prosperity, there is one area in US-Africa relations that is notably absent from Bolton’s plans – the traditional US reliance on soft power. Bolton’s introductory speech may only be the beginning of a comprehensive strategy, but it contains no reference to the Obama administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative, a 2010 programme to support promising Africans, nor any mention of boosting educational and cultural ties with the continent. Schneidman believes that this is one of the most dispiriting and significant omissions from the Bolton doctrine. 

“I think this administration has misplaced the value of soft power. One of the data points that’s so revealing is that more students are being educated in China from Africa than in the US and UK combined – the US and Africa have benefited so much over last few decades from those who came from the continent and were educated here.” 

With China boosting its own programmes on the continent, Harris believes that the lack of soft power initiatives is a major oversight. 

“The new strategy seems to view China through an almost exclusively economic lens. Beijing is deepening its ties with political parties, training journalists, offering scholarships, language training and cultural exchanges – this new strategy has a real blind spot.” 

At the same time, traditional US diplomacy on the continent has fallen by the wayside, with diplomatic posts in major African nations going empty for months, a slowness replicated across the diplomatic corps to little apparent gain. Meanwhile, Trump’s combustible character – highlighted by his dismissal of some African nations as “sh*thole countries”, has done little to endear him to would-be partners, while high level engagement with Africa’s leaders has been minimal. Bolton’s derisive references to “corrupt autocrats” and the sanctity of US taxpayer dollars may also raise eyebrows on the continent. 

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the new strategy can turn the tide on a continent where Chinese diplomats regularly offer high-level flattery, big-ticket infrastructure projects and limited censure of African governance norms.  

“The bottom line is that so far the Trump administration has done damage to US-Africa relations. It’s cut key programmes, reduced the focus on the continent, and left key positions vacant. So the Trump administration will need to reverse that harm before building out positive and proactive initiatives,” says Harris.

David Thomas

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Written by David Thomas

David Thomas is acting editor at African Business Magazine. He has also been published in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and South Africa's Cape Times.

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